Yesterday two really troubling articles appeared on my Facebook wall. I discussed one of them in depth on Facebook and the other I kind of left alone. Mainly because the person who posted the second one I don’t know that well and I didn’t want to smack them upside the head till I knew them better. The first was on how lemon and baking soda cures cancer (it doesn’t). The second on how the Dagare tribes treat mental illness.
Anthropology is a fascinating subject. In his books “One River” and “The Art of Shamanic healing” Wade Davis takes a trip down the Amazon (literally and figuratively) and explores shamanism it’s relation to heroic doses of hallucinogens and challenges western perceptions of reality and what we can learn from ritualism and tribalism. He somewhat succumbs to the myth of the Nobel Savage but he also breaks down English colonial pre-conceptions of primitives and what they can teach us.
Now Wade Davis is an ethnobiolgist and much more interested in plants than psychology. But his insights into the way that real shamans treat and heal people in the amazon are fascinating.
And I mention him because the article has a picture of an Amazonian shaman at the top of the page. This might be somewhat misleading because the Dagare tribe area actually from West Africa, near and in Ghana although they also have a large contingent in Burkini Faso.
In an article that purports to bridge cultural understanding it would seem a little insulting to conflate the two different peoples like that. Who…let’s be frank don’t even live on the same continent.
In any case the crux of the article is this; People in the west put schizophrenics away in homes and give them medication, people in Degare tribe recognise schizophrenia as someone experiencing strong psychic phenomena for the first time.
Let me state a position or at least clarify one for you. I am pro-psychology but as with anything we must acknowledge its short-comings. Psychology is an evolving discipline and it’s barely a science. Medication in psychology has come a long way in the last 10 years particularly. But in many ways it is still a blunt instrument. The medications associated with Bi-polar, depression and particularly schizophrenia often have real and terrible side effects and their efficacy is often limited. We don’t have good models for treatment for schizophrenia we just don’t. This reality must be terrifying for people touched with this disorder. This is in addition to dealing with a disorder that is so disruptive. I know that it’s hard and soul destroying to admit you are broken. It’s 100 times worse when there are few good options for being fixed. I do not begrudge anyone who would not want to admit this.
But what does this article offer us?
Let’s ignore the whole “the mentally ill are psychic” bit for a bit and say you want in on this seemingly enlightened way to treat people who get marginalised and treated badly in our society. There is good evidence that we need new paradigms for how we treat the mentally ill. There is currently a revolution in aged care for how people are treated with Alzheimer’s. For years the idea was to re-enforce the reality that they used to know and be a part of, this entailed telling people they were wrong and correcting them all the time. Now the schema is more akin to comedy improv where you never correct someone but inhabit their world. This 360 has shown amazing improvements in patients. But it is a pragmatic not spiritual approach and it’s not derived from any province in deepest darkest Africa but Scandinavia where human dignity is paramount. So what would I suggest if you feel the urge to head to Africa? Well the first piece of advice I would give you is make sure you know your left from your right because if you head to East Africa you might be accused of being a witch as many mentally ill people are and if you get accused of being a witch the next step is being burned alive. And this isn’t something that happened back in the 16th century. Seven women were burned alive THIS YEAR. I guess not all savages are noble or enlightened.
The other thing is that this article talks about schizophrenia but that’s by far not the most common form of mental illness. What about depression? 1 in 5 people experience depression, what are the spirits trying to tell us? That Nihilism is right? This says nothing about how the Degare handle despair, enuii, suidical thoughts or crushing self-esteem issues.
So what of the idea that schizophrenics are merely seeing a crack in the reality that normal people can’t perceive? Well this is a pervasive fictional premise in western literature but the evidence for it is…..(wait for it)….nil…zip….zero….zilch. Boy would I love it if some of my friends were really conduits to an alternative reality. And boy would they love it if that were the explanation. It’s a shame that it’s not the case.
we in the West are not trained in how to deal or even taught to acknowledge the existence of psychic phenomena
Well this is true, but not from a lack of looking. Science has tried time and time again to prove the existence of spirituality and psychic phenomena it’s the phenomena that has failed. Not science.
One thing that the article says that I agree with is the idea that Western culture crushes ritualism and that we need ritual to mark events so we know that they have happened like a rite of passage for youth to pass into adult hood. Couldn’t agree more. I know many people who are 30 year old boys and girls. Unfortunately this means that they never grew up enough to differentiate this kind of nonsense from reality.