Spirituality and Madness – aka are the mad really prophets?

I received a digital review copy of The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement recently and I must say: I have rarely read a book in which I highlighted so much…

However, instead of doing a proper review I will try and tackle the main issue this book raises. It is really several books in one and I don’t quite know what to make of it. I feel very unqualified to review this book, but then again – I don’t know who IS qualified. Who knows enough of human psychology, religion, spiritual transformation and medicine to tackle the basic questions in this arena?

Let’s start with my questions. Farber, the author, of course is very convinced he has the answers, which is one of the issues I have with the book.

  • Is there a sharp divide between the mad and the sane, or is there a continuum?
  • Does everyone who has a psychotic episode have to be on meds for the rest of their lives?
  • Are psychiatrists, who only prescribe medicines, really giving the best possible treatment of people in psychological trouble?
  • Is the spirituality of mad people a symptom or a potential source of inspiration? Or both?
  • If spirituality can help people deal with life changing processes, does that mean that every one of them can manage in our world without medicine?

By the way I put it, I think you can probably see where I stand in all of this.

I do think there is a continuum between the ‘mad’ and the ‘sane’. After all, most people aren’t able to manage their lives with a bit of self-medication either. I’m talking about coffee, alcohol, smoking etc. Life is simply hard for most of us and humans have resorted to mind-altering substances to take the edge off since the beginning of time.

When I talked the issue over with my mother (*), she noted that it’s very hard to make a reliable diagnosis of psychiatric illness and that psychiatrists too are human. This is an important point: it means that while individual psychiatrists may simply be wrong in individual cases, that doesn’t mean the entire paradigm is in trouble.

She doesn’t think the labels are meaningless. Farber does. He thinks all DSM labels can be summed up as people having issues with living. Which is part of the human condition.

Sure, having issues with living is part of the human condition. However, some people have more issues with living than others. Some people just can’t manage in our complex society without help.

I would be the last person to suggest that this help should all be medical. I’m all for more human ways of solving things and helping people cope, like psychotherapy, group therapy and (the least expensive version of that) self help groups. And yes, the spiritual dimension of the person in trouble should definitely be dealt with as well. And of course that spiritual dimension can become a source of inspiration and strength even if it’s also a symptom.

However, that doesn’t quite mean that every mad person is a potential prophet. Just like not every autistic kid is a genius: in fact, most will never function in a productive way in society. Let’s not be too romantic about prophets. Most of them never make it big time. Most of them don’t leave writings behind like Ezekiel. The alternative to medication is often living on the streets. Are we really going to abandon mad people like that?

Similarly, while madness is definitely one of the temporary side effects of a spiritual process of change (see: I’m You’re Not Going Crazy…You’re Just Waking Up! Michael Mirdad for instance) that doesn’t mean it’s also the other way around: that every mad person has enough internal resources to come out of a psychotic episode and recover a manageable place in society again. Note that the person who is sane enough to say ‘am I going crazy?’ is very different from the madman who tries to kill himself.

Farber talks about ‘creative maladjustment’, noting that we live in a mad society and that therefor, to be sane and to be well integrated in society might not mash. Or in other words: it takes a bit of denial to become really successful in this world. For most people. He also notes that mad people have a few healthy values in common: worry about the environment, distaste of the financial system and most are also spiritual. Is this a sign of their madness or of being attuned to a deeper truth about our world?

Creative maladjustment – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi etc. However, there’s a very big difference between taking an unusual path in life – an activist path – and losing your way so much that you end up walking by a railway talking to aliens, for instance.

My mom stressed that there is real suffering going on with these people. She felt that people who say that these things can be dealt with without medication don’t know what they’re talking about. I didn’t mention the Dark Night of the Soul to her. The question is – can every depressed person (aka mystic) find a way through their dark night of the soul or do some or even most need medical help?

Sure, trauma needs to be addressed as such. However, even though there is no clear area of the brain scientists can point to for bipolar disorder, but it does have a clear genetic component. Most bipolars simply can’t manage without medication. She also clearly contradicted the claim made by Farber that the incidence of suicide has gone UP with the rise of medication on this particular illness.

If Vincent van Gogh lived today he might have lived a bit longer because of medication.

Yes, studies of shamanism show that controlled madness (because that is what shamanism is: it’s about controlling alternate states of consciousness) can be beneficial and produce leaders (Lewis 1971). However, I don’t think those anthropologists checked whether there wasn’t also the equivalent of the village idiot around somewhere. In other words: just because the experiences described fit those of mad people in our society, that doesn’t mean that those people would have had those experiences in an uncontrolled way in our society.

The issue with madness is precisely that it takes people outside the realms of realism. That is: they’re no longer able to function in our complex society. This isn’t so strange, our society lacks a lot of the social support and structure that older social forms had. We’re biologically programmed for villages and tribes, not cities and apartment buildings where you don’t know your neighbor.

What’s more: in previous societies it was a lot easier to isolate yourself in a hut or a cave without really isolating yourself. That is: it’s hard to live in our society and manage a low level of sensory input.

Schizophrenics benefit from the hut in the wilderness approach. But who will check on them weekly? And how will they make a living?

Our society just isn’t good at dealing with people outside the social norms. I read Max Weber, a famous sociologist, a few years ago and he noted that we’re becoming slaves to our work. He saw the process happening, I think for most of us it’s a reality.

The question is: what happens to those who just can’t… Should they just be medicated into submission? Well, no. Preferably not, obviously.
It’s a bit like ADHD – we bombard kids with sensory input, feed them unhealthy foods, avoid letting them play outside and then medicate them to keep them quiet.

However, since we can’t change society to fit the mad person, the mad person may have to medicate themselves to fit society. At least a bit.
In a European context I think the best approach is simply in trying to find the right therapist, keep control over your own illness and take as little medicine as you can while learning to function again.

In a US context I do feel it’s likely that the pharmaceutical companies cause over-medication on a grand scale. I like what the Icarus project (found through Farber’s book) does with this: it has a guide on how to reduce your dependence on meds or even get off them.

My conclusion about the book is that while Seth Farber finds a lot of interesting people to quote and makes some good points, he doesn’t quite convince me that in every schizophrenic there is a prophet and the world would be better off listening than medicating him or her.

There is a lot of room in between… each individual case should be dealt with on it’s own merits. Some people can manage without drugs, others can’t. Some people really just need a good therapist and support network and can transform themselves. Others just don’t have the resilience to do without medication. Even if therapy does help and even if they do learn to use their spiritual perspective in a way that helps them.

Life isn’t always pretty.

Some notes

In writing this post I researched the topic of madness and spirituality online and found an article on integrating the spirit within psychosis. It sums up the literature on the topic quite well I think, though of course ignoring most of the anthropological material on shamanism. The classic on that topic, which we studied at Leiden University, is I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession.

(*) Marijke Baljon, a licenced humanist (Rogerian) psychotherapist who has worked with traumatized people, has published in professional journals and teaches at post-doc level. This post was NOT read by her before publication. The content is purely my responsibility.

19 thoughts on “Spirituality and Madness – aka are the mad really prophets?”

  1. Hi Katinka,

    Wow, quite a book I’m sure and a fascinating subject. I can’t really comment on the book, not having read it. Although, I’m fairly certain that like you, I’d feel unqualified to review it.

    I have just found your blog so I don’t have much background in what you write about but this subject is a little “thick.” Like you, spirituality and how we can use it to enhance and advance our lives and happiness is more along my lines. That being said, this topic is of particular interest at the moment because of something my sister is going through.

    She has taken on a boarder who has become more than just a boarder and I think more than just a friend. He exhibits many of the symptoms you described in your article. I maintain, and my sister is finding out, that he simply cannot function well without his meds. He scares her but she cannot let go.

    I’m just sharing with you. I know you cannot advise me. Just wanted to say I would tend to agree with you and not Mr. Farber even though these people can seem to be so intelligent, so “connected to spirit” and so beyond the scope of our understanding when they’re “on a roll” shall we say?

    Anyway, I thank you for your work. Look forward to hearing more from you!


    1. Wow, that sounds like a big one. I do have some advice actually. She needs to figure out how much she can accept from this person, where her bounderies are. Is she willing to accommodate his madness, in hopes of him finding his way out – or is there a point beyond which she’ll say – I’m sorry: either you take your meds, or you’re out of here…

      Schizophrenia (there, I’ve said it) has many of the same symptoms as psychological transformation that gets out of control. It’s very difficult to judge on the outside. The main question from the psychiatric perspective is: is this about trauma or is it mostly biological? If the first, therapy may help and indeed (in time) solve things. If the second – meds really probably is the only answer.

      One of the problems of trying to deal with such stuff is that we’re looking at the outside. It’s hard, even for experienced professionals, to see inside and know how to best deal with it. Sometimes therapy is the best solution, sometimes what a schizophrenic needs is simply solitude. What IS clear however, is that your sister is probably not qualified to deal with this at all. Her best chance is following her intuition and accepting that there is only so much she can do.

      IF this is about spiritual transformation, it’s about him finding the strength INSIDE to transform and grow. None of us can help with that, except provide a context in which that is possible. Whether your sister can provide that context, knowing her boarder may not find his way out at all, is up to her.

      From your description it sounds like Manic Depressive – and yes, the mania is grandiose. That’s a given. The question is whether your boarder can learn to recognize the manic state and not strengthen it. Or something. Mindfulness meditation may help. Observing without letting it overwhelm him. If he can manage that, he may be able to do the same with the depressive side of it. However, most don’t manage that without medicine, unfortunately.

      1. It is a big one. And thank you for your thoughts. It really helps me in my support of her. She’s in her fifties and never had a partner and now this dilemma for the past couple of years … worsening as he becomes more familiar and less “respectful” shall we say?

        As you can imagine probably, there are ancillary issues that exacerbate the problems but we won’t go into them. Let’s just say she’s NOT qualified to deal with this and has so little experience with relationships anyway.

        Thanks again, Katinka. You really went above and beyond in giving me things to think about!


  2. This is a tricky issue.

    Some folks are in need of psychological medication, even if it is just a placebo, not because the drug is helping them, but who knows what kind of madess can erupt without such a drug. It’s like imagining what would happen if we banned alcohol; sure it’s also a terrible drug, but shit would hit the fan, much like it did during prohibition.

    However, in the U.S. we are in a society which has gotten so far out of hand with pharmaceuticals, courteousy of a marriage big government and big pharma and a society which wants an easy pill. Just look at the weight loss industry.

    I think pills are temorary expedients at best—they can get someone through tought times—but need to be consciously administered and taken.

    1. To be an advocate of the devil here: madness may erupt anyhow. There was a killer in the news recently who had shown NO signs of becoming mad at all, before he did it. There were no symptoms at all.

      We would like, in our society, to controll every risk, every potential problem. The issue is: why should someone take medication (and we’re not talking placebo’s here, we’re talking drugs with strong side effects) because there MIGHT BE problems down the road? After all, most psychiatric patients really aren’t going to turn into killers.

      The potential risk to society should of course be taken into account when prescribing medicine to a patient, however – I do think the wellfare of the patient themselves should come first. If a patient would rather live on the streets than take their meds, why not? One begger more is something society can handle. And most of us can spare that dollar for the night at the safe house.

      Medicating people out of fear is not going to work.

      That’s in response to your first paragraph. I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your post.

  3. Wow. There really is a lot here.

    I just love you and I am completely mad and in the creative maladjustment sort of way. I either know social norms or expectations and do not find them wonderful and so I do not offer them any attention or I know social norms and think they are not healthy for me so it seems as if I am unaware of them when really I am doing my own bit of ‘activism’ in order for others to see they CAN be an erratic wildflower in a field of evenly mowed grass.

    But then I see examples of people who look as if they are in pain or truly cannot function to the good of their Spirit… to the extent their functioning is a daily struggle of avoiding suicide or society. Or, of course, those who turn their pain outward and harm individuals or society. And it’s this difference I have been interested in.

    What makes one turn ‘it’ inward vs turning ‘it’ outward? I’ve been curious to this for some years now.

    I still can’t believe you nailed this so well. I love it.

  4. Recommend Robert Whittaker’s “Mad in America.” People with Schizophrenia DO RECOVER without meds, it’s been proven time and again. And the fewer meds taken, the faster the recovery. Loren Moser (sp?) and his Soteria House experiment is a classic example. There is a REASON the anti-psychiatry movement in the U.S. continues to grow and grow and grow… Self-help tools such as Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland’s WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) are more helpful and HOPEful than anything I came across in 35 years of suffering major depression… with psychiatrists, meds, hospitals and the whole nine yards..

    1. I applaud all such initiatives and totally agree that less medicine than is usual in the US is good.

      However, the question isn’t ‘do some people diagnosed with Schizophrenia recover?’ The question is: ‘can all people diagnosed with Schizophrenia function without meds?’ Answer to the first: obviously yes – and probably in part due to misdiagnosis. The second – I highly doubt it.
      Individual people diagnosed will have to find their own path in this mess and yes, there is hope.

  5. /Is there a sharp divide between the mad and the sane, or is there a continuum?/

    The dividing line is whether they are doing harm to themselves or the society in which they find themselves, no? If the answer is yes, then medicine is the answer. If they are contributing, because they have some unique insight, then let them be, even if they are on the fringes of acceptability. Whether a person is excluded or included is really up to the society in which they co-exist, no? This is the same for the mad or the sane, is it not?

    I don’t think this is really what is on the mind of the author who wrote this book.

    1. Yes, sort of. The real issue is: once people have harmed themselves or are a danger to themselves and others, does that mean they are bound to be in the psychiatric system for ever? And is medicating them to the point of blankness the only option?

      The author knows enough about madness to recognize that people cross the line into socially unacceptable sometimes and may be a danger to themselves and others at that point of crisis. The question is: what happens next? Should what happens next include medicine for the rest of their lives, or should it aim at recovery?
      The author and I agree that the second is better: let there be the aim or recovery, let there be the aim of using as little medicine as possible.

      The detail we disagree on is in whether medicine should be involved at all. I think – yes, there is a place for medicine. The author thinks no – not necessary at all and in fact harmful in all cases.

  6. Stanislav Grof (psychiatrist and breathworker) gives a good checklist of the difference between a spiritual awakening and a psychotic episode in The Stormy Search for the Self. Dr. Terry Lynch (Doctor and psychotherapist) does a good analysis of the pill happy culture of medicine in Beyond Prozac.

    Great, thoughtful post. This is a complex topic and probably has no definitive answer. But the more professionals transcend their professional boundaries and explore other related fields, the more we might gain a compassionate perspective and not try to medicate everything away.

  7. Interesting thoughts: I’ll definitely have to add this book to my reading list. Thank you so much, and blessings to you.

  8. Wow, fascinating topic! (And, interestingly, one I’d been thinking about recently after an appointment with a client). I’m a professional Psychic Medium and a great deal of my work deals with connecting with the most profound experiences in a person’s life so as to help them understand their true motivations and fears (which are, more often than not, their true motivators!). In the course of both my intuitive and my medium work, I’ve worked with clients whose loved ones have been mentally ill and, I have to admit, it never gets easier to connect with them. As you can imagine, processing their perceptions can be very disturbing, particularly because most of the time they’re in a constant state of panic (and understandably so).

    I’ve been thinking about it recently because it occurred to me that the issue for many of them may very well be that they’re picking up on information from this dimension and another, simultaneously. Now, this may at first sound like science fiction, but physicists are just now beginning to seriously explore what Mediums have known all along: that there is more to this universe than this single dimension and the consciousness does not just magically disappear when the body dies. (I have to tell you, it never ceases to amaze me when a brilliant scientist believes that consciousness exists only BECAUSE a piece of flesh is functional – it’s irrational to me). In any case, sorry for the diatribe, but as I said, I’ve been thinking on this very topic lately!

  9. With respect to the panicky emotional state of many severely disturbed people, you put it very well, Kathy. A young woman suffering from schizophrenia once described it to me thus: “You know the feeling that you have just before the moment of impact in an auto accident? Well, that’s how I feel all the time.” And in case you happen to encounter any rigidly scientific types who insist on empirical proof that their own wonderful, luminous, nuanced, exquisitely complex conscious experience isn’t just the activity of a piece of flesh, I have a good counter. Read Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s The Fingerprints of God, and pay attention to the discussion of the Black Swan. It offers convincing proof that consciousness can exist outside of its physical vehicle.

  10. Hi Katinka . I found Anthony Storr’s ” Feet of Clay — A Study of Gurus ” to be an interesting and insightful book on the relationship between psychopathology and the ‘ authoritarian personality ‘ .

  11. What would you say the paraclete of God? What would you say to the Whitebuffalo? What would you say to the “Son of Man”? What would you say to the antichrist? All the same to me… What do you say?

  12. Hello interesting post , I have always. Been spiritual . I was never psychic until two years ago I had a nervous breakdown and didn’t sleep for a whole three weeks. During that time I just knew stuff that ppl would say or would then happen . I thought I was. Going nuts when I ‘heard. Someone speaking. To me saying to tell my sister something I did althougj it made no sense to me…she was astounded. The event had happened n the message meant something to her, she believed it to be a message from a friend who died years ago in an accident. It was strange …I heard myfriends voice speak in my head before they spoke, usually saying what I’d already heard. Many other curious things
    happened too. There is some research that suggests sleep deprivation can cause a ‘spiritual awakening ‘ and some say psychological probs can cause u to be psychic . After you experience I believe this may be true. I finally slept n haven’t had a psychic experience since. It was a strange but kind of nice experience I believe
    one hundred percent now that there’s more to life than meets the eye, although its a hoft I’d prefer not to have permanently tbh. Apologies for bad grammar btw using a dodgy keyboard

    happened tpp

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