IN 2017, the documentary CrazyWise rattled the mental health field, challenging the Western view and interpretation of mental illness by exploring how indigenous cultures have been dealing with similar issues for decades.
Turns out, mental health issues are nothing new to indigenous cultures. It is not a ‘modern day problem’ as some believe.
Similar experiences have been recorded in indigenous tribes for as long as their elders can remember: feelings of intense emotional pain, overwhelming anger, confusion, inability to distinguish between their own reality and the real world, difficulty relating with people especially with those closest to them, hearing voices, having visions, and feeling like their life has been turned upside down or that nothing makes sense anymore, among others.
While these symptoms are widely accepted as a mental disorder in the modern world, and necessitate medication – and at times, even confinement – to control them, those with similar experiences in indigenous tribes are usually taken under the wing of an elder (most of whom have had their own experience) and guided through the difficult time until its completion.
Yes, given the right guidance, it does end. Because in contrast to Western understanding, indigenous cultures consider the experience of psychosis as a process of personal transformation.
Singapore-based mental health coach and intuitive healer Tricia Tan agrees. “A mental health crisis is not a breakdown, it is a breakthrough,” she once said.
Tan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011, following more than six years of battling depression.
In particular, it was one two-week-long period of non-ordinary experiences that culminated in her mental health diagnosis.
She explained: “I experienced moments of bliss, increased energy and productivity, unusual creativity and freedom of expression, racing thoughts ... interspersed with sudden weeping, lack of appetite and loss of sleep.”
The episode ended with a trip to the emergency room where she was sedated and slept for two days.
She was subsequently put on a cocktail of medication, mainly anti-psychotic drugs meant to suppress the symptoms, and released after a week, with a weekly psychiatric appointment.
Convinced that she wasn’t ‘sick in her head’, and unsettled by the notion of being on medication for the rest of her life, she asked her psychiatrist to refer her to someone who could help her make sense of her non-ordinary experiences.
Advised to seek out religious leaders, she wasn’t particularly keen at first because she had been turned away from a local faith organisation in Singapore during an episode of psychosis.
But at the lowest point in her life in 2016, when she lost everything – her marriage, family, career and life savings – she turned to spirituality and religion for help.
She said: “I also came cross the book The Call of Spiritual Emergency by Dr Emma Bragdon. The book shed light on my condition, prompted a complete review of my life circumstances, and gave me the answers that I had been seeking for years – what I went through, all the way right up to my divorce, was a personal evolutionary process called spiritual emergence (or emergency)”.
The next couple of years, Tan went on a spiritual journey, studying various faiths and practices. It was also a time of deep personal discovery through healing.
She sought various alternative healing modalities such as medical intuition, chakra healing, sound healing, meditation, dance and movement, aromatherapy, colour therapy and faith healing, to gain insights and heal her psychological issues, which largely stems from childhood for most people.
She even flew to the US to study Spiritual Emergence with Bragdon herself, and gained certification as Asia’s first Spiritual Emergence Coach.
In the process, Tan found her own tribe. “Having the support of new friends in the spiritual circles also helped as we share common interests in pursuit of the spiritual path,” she said.
All this spurred Tan to return to Singapore, where in 2018 she founded Catalyst Connection, a social enterprise that seeks to de-stigmatise mental illness, and advocates for integrative mental healthcare, one anchored on the various dimensions of wellness – intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual, among others.
Just as not all psychological crises are the same – each has its unique blueprint in terms of signs and symptoms, Tan said: “Mental healthcare needs to be catered to individual’s needs.
“In addition, there is a need to integrate various disciplines of spirituality, psychiatry, psychology, food and nutrition, sports science and so on. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
The end result though is the same: personal growth. “A crisis puts us through a period of change and transformation, so that we can shed all that no longer serves our highest good whether it is social conditioning, obsolete preconceptions, unproductive habits and so on.
“It is a process of inner transformation so that we can realise our greatest potential.”