Shift in psychiatry spells good news for Caribbean healers
Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
A year ago, I visited a friend in Laventille, Trinidad. She related a harrowing scene involving her son who was driven crazy by auditory and visual hallucinations. She responded in the way she knew best.
She visited a seer, one gifted in the discernment and removal of malicious spirits that ostensibly caused the malady. That incident occurred 30 years ago.
The young man has since grown up unscathed and fully productive. He is a husband, father and professional. This story conjured wondrous memories of spiritual healings I witnessed every Sunday at a Mother Kali temple in Tunapuna. I was also privileged to have learned from modern-day oracles (seers).
Today, in New York City, known for the most cutting-edge procedures in medicine, spiritist healings are taking hold and with remarkable success, thanks to a growing Brasilian presence.
Practitioners are sometimes called Kardecists, because they follow the 'Spiritist' laws codified by the late French physician Alan Kardec.
Over the years, I have spent ample time with this group, grasping their etiology of mental and emotional disturbances. They hold that existential problems are caused by obsessive spirits - that victims, through their own moral deficiencies become magnets for these negative spirits.
Alan Kardec once wrote that, "One day obsession is going to be recognised as one of the main causes of mental disorders, as today the action of microscopic living creatures, whose existence no one even suspected."
Indeed, it is a curious philosophy worth investigating. In Brasil there are at least 50 'Spiritist' hospitals where physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, mediums and spirit controllers complement each other. These mediums channel obsessive spirits who, through forced disclosures, reveal their reasons for destroying the lives of their victims.
A host of psycho-emotional problems are blamed on tempestuous spirits. Summarily, these obsessive spirits are counselled until they release their victims. (Of course, it is a far more involved and complex process).
Emma Bragdon's Spiritism and Mental Illness: Practices in Spiritist Centers and Spiritist Psychiatric hospitals in Brasil offers a rare look into this phenomenon.
Over the years, this mode of treatment has gained respectability as the Medical Spiritist Association and the Brasilian Association of Spiritist Psychologists bolster the practice through their educational programmes.
Research has also been conducted by The Center for the Study of Religious and Spiritual problems, with clinical trials undertaken by several physicians, including Dr Frederico Camelo Leao, who in 2004 reported that spiritist treatments have proven markedly effective. Recently, the Spiritual Science Research Foundation (SSRF), founded by Dr Jayant Balaji Athavale, with offices in the US and Australia, also prompted many in the mental-health field to explore the plausibility of spiritual obsession.
The SSRF views the spiritual dimension as structured and measurable with the requisite tool of a highly developed perceptive ability. Theirs is an epistemology that bridges psychiatry and Vedic spirituality. Both these approaches have built on the work of Dr Carl Wickland, a relatively obscure psychiatrist, whose book, Thirty Years Among the Dead, published in the 1920s, objectified the spiritual world and mapped its interconnectedness with the mind, body and emotions. He was convinced that all types of dementia, melancholia, addictions, kleptomania, dipsomania, and immoralities had their basis in the realm of spirit.
Also notable at California-based institutes is the advancement of consciousness studies that integrate shamanism and psychiatry.
One of its most renowned proponents, Stanislaus Grof, a Czechoslovakian psychiatrist and developer of holotropic breath work, quipped that modern medicine would have pathologised the founders of the world's great religions.
The diagnosis and therapeutic models of all these approaches vary, but they offer new vistas for understanding the multidimensional layers of the mind. Grof once stated that "the real problem is different to what you intellectually think it is".
I am convinced that these remarkable developments should be keenly followed. This new transcultural paradigm in psychiatry has legitimised shamans and our very own obeah practitioners.
It has brought to the fore the once marginalised role of our traditional healers, long labouring in subcultural and shadowy settings, away from the calumny of religious orthodoxy and lay hypocrisy.
Today, some governments, as in the case of Bhutan, have embraced these gifted folks as pillars of their nation's health-care system.
The insight, abilities, and oral traditions of our own Caribbean healers must be respected and preserved. Over the years their services have been furtively sought by thousands of desperate citizens of every class, race and religious affiliation.
With this ongoing shift in psychiatry, the nagging stigma associated with this unique gift to do the incredulous (when all else has failed) may finally be laid to rest.
Admittedly, any undertaking to integrate traditional healing with contemporary medicine will require research, standardisation and the establishment of an accrediting body. No doubt, this is a time-consuming and complex exercise.
However, such an initiative is unlikely without first nationally acknowledging the invaluable role of the seers among us. We cannot proceed without this all-important gesture.
Dr Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council. You may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.