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.”