Saturday, August 24, 2013


A little while ago we watched several videos in my Diagnosis of Mental Health Issues in Counseling class. One video was about Dorothy, a woman with a severe bipolar disorder, who was convinced that she was chosen to work as a secret agent for Jesus Christ. It was  fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time.

It also made me think.

The mental health field has been increasingly focusing on the role of spirituality in counseling and on the importance of being open to different beliefs and spiritual practices than one’s own. Which is fantastic! But historically, weren’t people holding less common beliefs often accused of being insane? And could such a thing happen nowadays, even to a multiculturally competent counselor?

Consider an example from my own life: 

Once upon the time I had to break up with my boyfriend of five years because he experienced a “spiritual awakening”, whatever it was, and got to the conclusion that he was a prophet. His true purpose in life, he claimed, was to teach people to find the true path to God. As a result, he was no longer willing to have a job (couldn’t be bothered working for our rotten, capitalistic society) and you can guess who ended up paying the all the bills!

Soon it became impossible to even have a conversation with him. Because he was bitter that I refused to become his first disciple, he took his anger on me by trying to convince me that I was a miserable and dysfunctional person, “full of darkness”, who contributed greatly to the suffering in the world by refusing to change (and refusing to accept that he was equal to Jesus Christ and Buddha).

As you can probably imagine, the relationship didn’t last very long after that

What was interesting though was that as much as I was angry with him because of the way he treated me, it never occurred to me that he was mentally ill. I knew that he has been interested in religion and spirituality for quite a while and did a lot of reading and meditating; and I had no doubt that he did have some kind of spiritual experience. But clearly I was the only one. because everyone else freaked out and started talking about schizophrenia.

I didn’t believe that he had schizophrenia. He became so extremist in his views that we were no longer compatible as a couple (leave alone the fact that I couldn’t afford to support both of us), but medically, there was nothing wrong with his brain. As far as I was concerned, every religion had prophets, spiritual teachers, and/or holy men, and I saw no reason why a few couldn’t hang around in our modern world.

 Of course, whether I actually wanted to live with one was an entirely different story :-)

The truth is that people believe in all sorts of things, and the perception of what is normal and what not varies with every individual. Ask Dr. Kenneth Pargament, whose book Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred I recently finished. In one chapter he talks about one of his clients, a woman who lost her child and consequently developed a belief that her child stayed close by as a spirit. She found a great comfort in talking to her child, singing to him, and sharing with him her joys and concerns. It WORKED for her! But her parents freaked out, accused her of being delusional, and dragged her to therapy, demanding of Dr. Pargament to “fix” her.

It’s important to realize, however, that there is a fundamental difference between this woman and Dorothy in the video. Dorothy had to be hospitalized and undergo treatment, because she was no longer able to function in the society and became a danger to herself and to others. Even the most open-minded counselor couldn’t let her run around trying to hurt people. But Dr. Pargament’s client had her life under control. Yes, she was talking to her dead child, but she was also capable of going to work every day and taking care of her remaining kids. Her belief in the presence of her child’s spirit didn’t interfere with her functioning in any way – in fact, just the opposite - yet was unacceptable to her parents, who as atheists weren’t able to share it. She was lucky to be referred to a therapist, who didn’t see her behavior as delusional, but rather as a powerful coping mechanism.

And that’s exactly why I believe it’s so important for mental health professionals to educate themselves in all things spiritual, no matter what their personal beliefs might be, and to become open to the idea that just because somebody does believe something we don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is batshit crazy. That’s what all those Multicultural Counseling classes are – or should be – about...

But then again, where is the line? I also don’t want to be the kind of counselor who is so comfortable with talking about angels that she overlooks severe psychotic symptoms!

Oh, well. I never said that my blog had all the answers! I will just have to do my best and hope that the Universe knows what it’s doing... Because very few things in life have a black-and white answer :-)

 P.S. When I typed “batshit” into my search engine to verify whether I got the spelling right, the first thing that popped at me was a photo of Sarah Palin. I love you, Yahoo, you made my day!!!!

1 comment:

Pavel said...

Margaret, I really like your attitude! Even if I enjoy reading anti-psychiatrist texts (very well captured by a Thomas Szasz quote: "If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia." sometimes its too radical and destructive. What you suggest is (for me) to be constantly aware of the blurred boundary between normal and pathological which is very healthy and very up-to-date (also with regard to the DSM-5 revision). Thanks! Nepa