What a Shaman Sees in A Mental Hospital

by Stephanie Marohn

The Shamanic View of Mental Illness

In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” explains Malidoma Patrice Somé. Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.

What those in the West view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.” The person going through the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm. “Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field,” says Dr. Somé. These disturbances result when the person does not get assistance in dealing with the presence of the energy from the spirit realm.

One of the things Dr. Somé encountered when he first came to the United States in 1980 for graduate study was how this country deals with mental illness. When a fellow student was sent to a mental institute due to “nervous depression,” Dr. Somé went to visit him.

“I was so shocked. That was the first time I was brought face to face with what is done here to people exhibiting the same symptoms I’ve seen in my village.” What struck Dr. Somé was that the attention given to such symptoms was based on pathology, on the idea that the condition is something that needs to stop. This was in complete opposition to the way his culture views such a situation. As he looked around the stark ward at the patients, some in straitjackets, some zoned out on medications, others screaming, he observed to himself, “So this is how the healers who are attempting to be born are treated in this culture. What a loss! What a loss that a person who is finally being aligned with a power from the other world is just being wasted.”

Another way to say this, which may make more sense to the Western mind, is that we in the West are not trained in how to deal or even taught to acknowledge the existence of psychic phenomena, the spiritual world. In fact, psychic abilities are denigrated. When energies from the spiritual world emerge in a Western psyche, that individual is completely unequipped to integrate them or even recognize what is happening. The result can be terrifying. Without the proper context for and assistance in dealing with the breakthrough from another level of reality, for all practical purposes, the person is insane. Heavy dosing with anti-psychotic drugs compounds the problem and prevents the integration that could lead to soul development and growth in the individual who has received these energies.

On the mental ward, Dr Somé saw a lot of “beings” hanging around the patients, “entities” that are invisible to most people but that shamans and psychics are able to see. “They were causing the crisis in these people,” he says. It appeared to him that these beings were trying to get the medications and their effects out of the bodies of the people the beings were trying to merge with, and were increasing the patients’ pain in the process. “The beings were acting almost like some kind of excavator in the energy field of people. They were really fierce about that. The people they were doing that to were just screaming and yelling,” he said. He couldn’t stay in that environment and had to leave.

In the Dagara tradition, the community helps the person reconcile the energies of both worlds–”the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village and community.” That person is able then to serve as a bridge between the worlds and help the living with information and healing they need. Thus, the spiritual crisis ends with the birth of another healer. “The other world’s relationship with our world is one of sponsorship,” Dr. Somé explains. “More often than not, the knowledge and skills that arise from this kind of merger are a knowledge or a skill that is provided directly from the other world.”

The beings who were increasing the pain of the inmates on the mental hospital ward were actually attempting to merge with the inmates in order to get messages through to this world. The people they had chosen to merge with were getting no assistance in learning how to be a bridge between the worlds and the beings’ attempts to merge were thwarted. The result was the sustaining of the initial disorder of energy and the aborting of the birth of a healer.

“The Western culture has consistently ignored the birth of the healer,” states Dr. Somé. “Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention. They have to try harder.” The spirits are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized. “The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in,” he notes.

Those who develop so-called mental disorders are those who are sensitive, which is viewed in Western culture as oversensitivity. Indigenous cultures don’t see it that way and, as a result, sensitive people don’t experience themselves as overly sensitive. In the West, “it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them,” observes Dr. Somé. The frenetic pace, the bombardment of the senses, and the violent energy that characterize Western culture can overwhelm sensitive people.

Schizophrenia and Foreign Energy

With schizophrenia, there is a special “receptivity to a flow of images and information, which cannot be controlled,” stated Dr. Somé. “When this kind of rush occurs at a time that is not personally chosen, and particularly when it comes with images that are scary and contradictory, the person goes into a frenzy.”

What is required in this situation is first to separate the person’s energy from the extraneous foreign energies, by using shamanic practice (what is known as a “sweep”) to clear the latter out of the individual’s aura. With the clearing of their energy field, the person no longer picks up a flood of information and so no longer has a reason to be scared and disturbed, explains Dr. Somé.

Then it is possible to help the person align with the energy of the spirit being attempting to come through from the other world and give birth to the healer. The blockage of that emergence is what creates problems. “The energy of the healer is a high-voltage energy,” he observes. “When it is blocked, it just burns up the person. It’s like a short-circuit. Fuses are blowing. This is why it can be really scary, and I understand why this culture prefers to confine these people. Here they are yelling and screaming, and they’re put into a straitjacket. That’s a sad image.” Again, the shamanic approach is to work on aligning the energies so there is no blockage, “fuses” aren’t blowing, and the person can become the healer they are meant to be.

It needs to be noted at this point, however, that not all of the spirit beings that enter a person’s energetic field are there for the purposes of promoting healing. There are negative energies as well, which are undesirable presences in the aura. In those cases, the shamanic approach is to remove them from the aura, rather than work to align the discordant energies

Alex: Crazy in the USA, Healer in Africa

To test his belief that the shamanic view of mental illness holds true in the Western world as well as in indigenous cultures, Dr. Somé took a mental patient back to Africa with him, to his village. “I was prompted by my own curiosity to find out whether there’s truth in the universality that mental illness could be connected with an alignment with a being from another world,” says Dr. Somé.

Alex was an 18-year-old American who had suffered a psychotic break when he was 14. He had hallucinations, was suicidal, and went through cycles of dangerously severe depression. He was in a mental hospital and had been given a lot of drugs, but nothing was helping. “The parents had done everything–unsuccessfully,” says Dr. Somé. “They didn’t know what else to do.”

With their permission, Dr. Somé took their son to Africa. “After eight months there, Alex had become quite normal, Dr. Somé reports. He was even able to participate with healers in the business of healing; sitting with them all day long and helping them, assisting them in what they were doing with their clients . . . . He spent about four years in my village.” Alex stayed by choice, not because he needed more healing. He felt, “much safer in the village than in America.”
To bring his energy and that of the being from the spiritual realm into alignment, Alex went through a shamanic ritual designed for that purpose, although it was slightly different from the one used with the Dagara people. “He wasn’t born in the village, so something else applied. But the result was similar, even though the ritual was not literally the same,” explains Dr. Somé. The fact that aligning the energy worked to heal Alex demonstrated to Dr. Somé that the connection between other beings and mental illness is indeed universal.

After the ritual, Alex began to share the messages that the spirit being had for this world. Unfortunately, the people he was talking to didn’t speak English (Dr. Somé was away at that point). The whole experience led, however, to Alex’s going to college to study psychology. He returned to the United States after four years because “he discovered that all the things that he needed to do had been done, and he could then move on with his life.”

The last that Dr. Somé heard was that Alex was in graduate school in psychology at Harvard. No one had thought he would ever be able to complete undergraduate studies, much less get an advanced degree.

Dr. Somé sums up what Alex’s mental illness was all about: “He was reaching out. It was an emergency call. His job and his purpose was to be a healer. He said no one was paying attention to that.”

After seeing how well the shamanic approach worked for Alex, Dr. Somé concluded that spirit beings are just as much an issue in the West as in his community in Africa. “Yet the question still remains, the answer to this problem must be found here, instead of having to go all the way overseas to seek the answer. There has to be a way in which a little bit of attention beyond the pathology of this whole experience leads to the possibility of coming up with the proper ritual to help people.

Longing for Spiritual Connection

A common thread that Dr. Somé has noticed in “mental” disorders in the West is “a very ancient ancestral energy that has been placed in stasis, that finally is coming out in the person.” His job then is to trace it back, to go back in time to discover what that spirit is. In most cases, the spirit is connected to nature, especially with mountains or big rivers, he says.

In the case of mountains, as an example to explain the phenomenon, “it’s a spirit of the mountain that is walking side by side with the person and, as a result, creating a time-space distortion that is affecting the person caught in it.” What is needed is a merger or alignment of the two energies, “so the person and the mountain spirit become one.” Again, the shaman conducts a specific ritual to bring about this alignment.

Dr. Somé believes that he encounters this situation so often in the United States because “most of the fabric of this country is made up of the energy of the machine, and the result of that is the disconnection and the severing of the past. You can run from the past, but you can’t hide from it.” The ancestral spirit of the natural world comes visiting. “It’s not so much what the spirit wants as it is what the person wants,” he says. “The spirit sees in us a call for something grand, something that will make life meaningful, and so the spirit is responding to that.”

That call, which we don’t even know we are making, reflects “a strong longing for a profound connection, a connection that transcends materialism and possession of things and moves into a tangible cosmic dimension. Most of this longing is unconscious, but for spirits, conscious or unconscious doesn’t make any difference.” They respond to either.

As part of the ritual to merge the mountain and human energy, those who are receiving the “mountain energy” are sent to a mountain area of their choice, where they pick up a stone that calls to them. They bring that stone back for the rest of the ritual and then keep it as a companion; some even carry it around with them. “The presence of the stone does a lot in tuning the perceptive ability of the person,” notes Dr. Somé. “They receive all kinds of information that they can make use of, so it’s like they get some tangible guidance from the other world as to how to live their life.”

When it is the “river energy,” those being called go to the river and, after speaking to the river spirit, find a water stone to bring back for the same kind of ritual as with the mountain spirit.

“People think something extraordinary must be done in an extraordinary situation like this,” he says. That’s not usually the case. Sometimes it is as simple as carrying a stone.

A Sacred Ritual Approach to Mental Illness

One of the gifts a shaman can bring to the Western world is to help people rediscover ritual, which is so sadly lacking. “The abandonment of ritual can be devastating. From the spiritual view, ritual is inevitable and necessary if one is to live,” Dr. Somé writes in Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community. “To say that ritual is needed in the industrialized world is an understatement. We have seen in my own people that it is probably impossible to live a sane life without it.”

Dr. Somé did not feel that the rituals from his traditional village could simply be transferred to the West, so over his years of shamanic work here, he has designed rituals that meet the very different needs of this culture. Although the rituals change according to the individual or the group involved, he finds that there is a need for certain rituals in general.

One of these involves helping people discover that their distress is coming from the fact that they are “called by beings from the other world to cooperate with them in doing healing work.” Ritual allows them to move out of the distress and accept that calling.

Another ritual need relates to initiation. In indigenous cultures all over the world, young people are initiated into adulthood when they reach a certain age. The lack of such initiation in the West is part of the crisis that people are in here, says Dr. Somé. He urges communities to bring together “the creative juices of people who have had this kind of experience, in an attempt to come up with some kind of an alternative ritual that would at least begin to put a dent in this kind of crisis.”

Another ritual that repeatedly speaks to the needs of those coming to him for help entails making a bonfire, and then putting into the bonfire “items that are symbolic of issues carried inside the individuals . . . It might be the issues of anger and frustration against an ancestor who has left a legacy of murder and enslavement or anything, things that the descendant has to live with,” he explains. “If these are approached as things that are blocking the human imagination, the person’s life purpose, and even the person’s view of life as something that can improve, then it makes sense to begin thinking in terms of how to turn that blockage into a roadway that can lead to something more creative and more fulfilling.”

The example of issues with an ancestors touches on rituals designed by Dr. Somé that address a serious dysfunction in Western society and in the process “trigger enlightenment” in participants. These are ancestral rituals, and the dysfunction they are aimed at is the mass turning-of-the-back on ancestors. Some of the spirits trying to come through, as described earlier, may be “ancestors who want to merge with a descendant in an attempt to heal what they weren’t able to do while in their physical body.”

“Unless the relationship between the living and the dead is in balance, chaos ensues,” he says. “The Dagara believe that, if such an imbalance exists, it is the duty of the living to heal their ancestors. If these ancestors are not healed, their sick energy will haunt the souls and psyches of those who are responsible for helping them.” The rituals focus on healing the relationship with our ancestors, both specific issues of an individual ancestor and the larger cultural issues contained in our past. Dr. Somé has seen extraordinary healing occur at these rituals.

Taking a sacred ritual approach to mental illness rather than regarding the person as a pathological case gives the person affected–and indeed the community at large–the opportunity to begin looking at it from that vantage point too, which leads to “a whole plethora of opportunities and ritual initiative that can be very, very beneficial to everyone present,” states. Dr. Somé.

The Shamanic View of Mental Illness

by Stephanie Marohn (featuring Malidoma Patrice Somé)

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  1. I so wish you’d not used the word ‘inmates’ when talking about the patients. They’re not criminal and are not in prison. The wrong language only perpetuates the stigma many mental health patients feel.

  2. I have always believed something similar. Corinthians 12 talks about spiritual gifts and it was my thought that these people were prophets. Or simply had spirits stuck within.
    it is my belief that they can be reached by a psychic or using Telepathy.
    Once the drugs are administered it confuses the host and they are rendered zombies. They’re capable of relaying much information but are so misunderstood.
    I myself can see how easy it is to be misunderstood if you were to say “I hear voices in my head, I see aura’s etc”
    All I would love to say is. If there are Telepaths sitting around doing nothing, get yourself up to a hospital and do something….


  3. I found this so articulately written, I am a firm believer in mental illness as being a gateway to higher consciousness. I experienced that exact thing in my own life, having emerged from severe mental illness myself and the key to unlocking that door was Shamanic healing.
    It laid the foundation for me to emerge from the maelstrom and hellish chaos that my mind was in from 2005 – 2012. I would love to speak with the author of this article.

  4. Where in Ireland can a person meet with a shamanic healer? This article resonates with me, even though i never had the gifts of hearing voices or seeing visions i have other gifts that give me an insight into situations and people but sadly those gifts have been wasted on me due to a lifetime of severe and frequently recurring depression that has all but destroyed me.. How i survived the past year i do not know, it feels like my spirit is dying ,”( there is a sense of smothering due to lack of outlet, overwhelming fear and zero self-confidence i feel i am self-destructing and unable to help myself ,”( thus i am become a burden on family and not the helper/ healer/ teacher /comforter i might be… Am desperate at this stage.. Mary

    • Hi Mary,
      I have just read the article on shamanic beliefs on mental illness.

      I am here in Ireland like you and there are shamanic healers/teachers here

      Off hand I cannot give you names but I recall hearing of names.

      I am battling bi polar myself and I am going for treatment in the Uk net wk.

      My belief is that my ASSEMPLAGE POINT has to be shifted back,when it is back where it should be my belief will be that it will be life changing



    • Hello Mary.

      I am, Daithi from Bray, living in Australia. I am happy to converse with you if you might want some assistance. I have never seen so called mental health conditions as described by western medical approach, as having any understanding or comprehension as to what is occurring in the individual. The Shamanic approach of Malidoma Patrice Somé, in my view, has a great deal of merit. Alas we no longer have the Druids (our Shaman) to give guidance. I’m unsure as to how much value or benefit I can be, and particularly at this distance, but am willing to try, if you still feel you are in need of support. Namaste

  5. The post is a very interesting one , and after reading it , I felt some connections with the writer, as an essayist andlea with some elements of spiritual insights and similar experience in past where I had some conflicts within my spiritual being and visiting entity trying to make to extend world predictions through me ,which I never wanted before, today I understand better and knew that all I need is training and better mind-set to accept that possibilities to be the help for all humanity, am equally using this very medium to seek for direct link to the writer Dr some’ , my email is [email protected]

  6. Peaceable greetings!
    I amwonderfully encouraged by Dr. Some’s work to “westernize” the Shamanic approach for us in the US! It is my son who has been reached by a force beyond my capacity to help him fully, yet I believe he is special. At the same time I am hopeful he can be helped and help others as he goes through his life. Please let me know more of your work, Dr. Some’
    I am not ready for a psychic reading I would like to learn more. A trusted friend shared this reading with me. Please respond, please. Thank you for your dedicated work!

  7. It’s the best time to make some plans for the future
    and it’s time to be happy. I have read this publish and if I may I wish
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    Maybe you can write subsequent articles referring to this
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  8. I believe totally that there is definitely more than meets the eye when it comes to “mental illness” experiences, including within “hospitals” …. I have had many many experiences myself within a hospital and the majority of what goes on in there is spiritual….there are people there who are simple and seem to not make sense sometimes , yet are very tuned in and spiritually aware….. People who have suffered and people who are in tune. I have seen so much go on ….I believe the “pathology” of mental illness is just a way for everyday humans (psychiatrists) who may not have a concept of spiritual healing/growth/emergence/emergency to try to “treat” And lesser the “symptoms” of distress someone with “mental illness ” may be experiencing….the word “mental” used to be depicted as “mind” and in ancient times the “mind” was thought to be the “soul”…. So these people with “mental health issues” are technically suffering within their soul…. In a myriad of ways….some very personal and some obvious…some intricate and complicated, with a long story and some plain and clear…..humans (psychiatrists) tend to give “medications” to lessen the effects of “symptoms” but what they don’t know is that their medications are not the answer!! It’s inner healing that is the answer…. It is about the soul (person experiencing a soul of pain and damage etc) healing and growing and transforming and learning and advancing towards what resonates with their whole being… What is healthy for their soul…what is beneficial… Some of these souls need some deep very deep healing….this is where spirituality comes into the picture….an example of spirituality isn’t just praying to a divinity; but living every moment and aspect of our lives with truth and authenticity… Being real and authentic with ourselves…. Following our callings and our dreams….and following what we know is good for us and beneficial….listening to intuition and impressions… Following our gut instinct… Finding out the truth of life…. Going against the grain of society if it means health and peace for you…and also about loving and caring for those who are precious to you….giving back to the ones you love…repairing that damaged relationship, responding in forgiveness and compassion…seeing and keeping hope and faith in humanity …. Knowing you can make a difference… And applying that kindness and faith in everyday life….

  9. I worked as a psychiatriac RN for many years. The symbol for psych is a Y shaped figure ,which means spirit. I saw many beautiful souls while working there. We called them patients,not inmates.
    We did restrain some of the patients, so they would not self harm. All thepatients had an unusual sensitivity to their environment .

    Many patients were tormented due to being terribly abused by their family members or others.
    Sometimes chemical,western medicine was life saving to this population. I often thought that maybe the altered reality of the patients was due to other spirits around them.
    I enjoyed this article. I would love to see some alternative methods, such as Shamanic methods; used here in the USA.


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