Is there some truth in the shamanistic view on mental illness?

OPINION The US has seen a sharp and startling increase in mental disorders among its population in recent years. According to the American Psychological Association, there is…

Shamans believe problems in the physical world are based in the spiritual realm. (Shutterstock)


The US has seen a sharp and startling increase in mental disorders among its population in recent years. According to the American Psychological Association, there is now between 10 and 20 times as many cases of depression as there was 50 years ago.

Another disconcerting change is that it has become a young person’s problem. Thirty years ago, the average age of someone affected by depression was 29.5. Now the average age is between 14 and 15.

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The nation’s youth is in grave danger because the world around them has prioritized progress over happiness and well-being. Children and teenagers believe themselves to be worthless because they cannot meet the impossibly high standards set for them by society. Expectations have been placed so high that the result is mass disappointment.

And instead of offering help or compassion towards those affected by the inevitable effect that progress without ethics brings about, society rejects them, labels them as lazy, crazy or dysfunctional.

But shamans see these gifted individuals in another light.

When a shaman sees mental illness, they see the birth of a healer.

A shaman woman executes a ceremony geared towards the water spirits. (Shutterstock)

A shaman’s point of view

A shaman is someone who interacts with both the normal, physical world and the world of the supernatural, spirits, usually acting as a sort of intermediary between the two. They are common in many countries with tribal cultures, although shamanism can also exist in other types of societies.

This person is usually responsible for both the physical and spiritual health of the people within their community, and he or she may also be called upon to invoke spirits for aid or to predict the future and interpret omens.

Shamans believe feelings of the kind experienced by people with mental disorders such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder are actually in fact spirits or energies from another realm. When a shaman sees mental illness, they see the birth of a healer. Mental disorders are spiritual emergencies or spiritual crises and must be seen in that way so that the healer can be aided in being born.

Some people are simply more naturally sensitive to the emotions and flows of people and life. When people experience such symptoms, they are believed to be healers or shamans in training.

Those energies are trying to tell them something and they must communicate that message to the others within that community.

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When a shaman visits a mental hospital, he is shocked at the way their supposed healers are treated in the Western world. He does not understand why they are confined in strait jackets, shunned from the light of day and zonked out on so much medication that reality is a far-away dream.

A different approach to mental illness

With schizophrenia, there is a special “receptivity to a flow of images and information, which cannot be controlled,” stated Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé, a shaman of the Dagara people from the West African nations of Ghana and Burkina Faso.

“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, further explains Dr. Somé.

Only then is it possible for the person to 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.”

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.

Dr. Somé wasn’t sure how to transfer the rituals from his traditional village to the West, so over his years of shamanic work, 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.

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.

A shaman only sees an individual’s potential being wasted in a mental institution. Everyone loses the opportunity to benefit and learn from someone who is being aligned with a power from the other world and the patients lose any hope of ever having a normal life, freed from their mental walls.