I have advocated for mental health longer than I did for spirituality as a whole. In fact, for most of my years, I wouldn't say I liked anything that stood for some belief in whatever higher power exists. I had this strong dislike for belief systems because I needed higher powers to end my suffering and let me be mentally illness-free and cease all traumatic and triggering events for me, but they did not. So we had quite the beef for a very long time.
Over my teenage years, I had way more episodes than I'd imagine a mentally ill person would have on average. I was on so much medication that I had to carry them in a cooler bag, and I lost count of the number of conditions I had been diagnosed with. When people prayed, I planned my next suicide attempt, and when they went to church conferences, I was checking into a facility for the umpteenth time.
So imagine my shock when I end up in a healer's quarters and learn that I need to be a spiritual healer in training.
What I had known as nightmares were important, interpretable dreams, and there was a blurred line between the usual start to an anxiety attack and spiritual intuition. When I described my depressive episodes, some were laid out as mokhokha (when you feel what somebody who needs healing is going through). I thought what they were described as a trance could pass as a psychotic episode.
When it took me to initiate into a fully functional traditional healer, I had to find ways to draw that thin line between spiritual communication and mental illness. I found that anxiety is riddled with fear, while spiritual intuition has more of a sense of surety. Usually, my concern identifies itself as "what if?" while spiritual intuition brings out the "I just know" feeling. There are still days when both could be happening concerning a similar event. I try to avoid the situation on those days because I have not figured out how to deal with that kind of turbulence yet.
Depression and mokhokha were the most difficult to differentiate because, for a long time, I felt that my mental health struggles were being reduced to mere spiritual beliefs. I eventually understood the dynamics of this kind of spiritual communication enough to find a gap between the two. From experience, if there is a sprinkle of suicidal thoughts or any feeling of worthlessness, then it is a depressive episode. If I have the strong urge to find out what caused the downward spiral, I categorize it as part of the spirit's communication.
The crazy thing, though is, getting a patient with a history of mental health issues could give you mokhokha of that particular mental disorder that needs urgent treatment. So it becomes almost impossible to figure out whether you are experiencing someone else's symptoms or yours.
When I told my psychiatrist I was seeing dead people and talking to them and seeing things that were not there, it was listed as a symptom of psychosis. So I generally classified any hallucination I had as a psychotic symptom.
However, it turns out I'm a medium in the spiritual world. Mediumship refers to the practice of mediating communication between spirits of the dead and living human beings. For instance, initiation illness – an illness a healer succumbs to until they answer their spiritual calling, which has a lot of mediumship within it, can mask itself like an episode of psychosis. While I was going through my initiation illness a couple of years ago, I saw and fought with dead loved ones, communicated with them, and saw myself in a completely different setting than reality.
My waist down paralysis was listed as a mental condition that became one of the symptoms. Fortunately, every other western medical test came back green light; this pushed my doctor at the time to recommend a traditional healer because she could not figure me out. The healer I got to see interpreted what I was going through as symptoms of a fast-tracked initiation illness, I was just due for my intwaso (initiation), and my talking to dead loved ones was honest and important spiritual communication.
As a traditional healer who is a mental health care user, it has become quite challenging to do my work as an advocate for mental health and a spiritual healer. In spaces where I'm working to advocate for mental health, there is a grand belief that spirit has completely healed me from my conditions because it's made me stronger. When I work as a spiritual healer, the challenge is to help a patient understand that some things are not witchcraft per se; it could be an extreme case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many other healers are quick to dismiss pre-existing mental health issues when they see their patients, which opens the door to exploring the thin line between spirit messages and mental disorders.
There is a sizeable psychiatric health gap in our communities. This is because most traditional and spiritual healers do not know to draw the line between a mental disorder diagnosis and spirit communication. According to the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), there are an estimated 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa and only 915 practicing psychiatrists who majorly work in private sectors in urban areas. My ability as a healer to differentiate between spiritual and psychiatric health issues largely stems from my experiences with both.
I genuinely doubt I would have the ability if I had not been diagnosed with mental disorders before having to go into initiation. Traditional healers' influence on most of the nation's communities could help get them the help they need. However, the education needs to start with the estimated 200 000 practicing traditional healers.
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