Friday, November 25, 2016

Hallucinations or spiritual experiences? - Part 2

Continued from yesterday...

Dangerous convictions

Several of the patients that Hanevik interviewed use faith to cope with their psychosis.

But belief in higher powers can also be dangerous for them. Voices and visions do not always have good intentions. Evil spirits can bring messages for a patient to harm himself or others.

This happened to Hans. "I can see that I’ve been drawn to dark forces... I believe so strongly that there are outside forces, and I’ve heard voices, good and evil ones, and I’ve seen some kinds of shapes. There’s a lot that’s so intense... ," he says.

Danny believes that Jesus is an astronaut who will pick him up if he tries to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge.

And although Elmer thinks it’s a lifesaver to be Jesus, Hanevik sees that it doesn’t help him integrate back into society.

She has treated psychotic patients over several years and found this to be an advantage when she was interviewing patients. It can be tricky business to follow the logic of a twisted view of reality.

Can get even sicker

One-third of schizophrenia patients will never be cured of the illness, which is one of the psychoses Hanevik has studied.

Some psychiatrists believe that focusing on the content of the psychosis can make patients sicker. Hanevik belongs to a tradition that believes exploring experiences can help patients sort out the ideas whirling in their heads.

Some studies show that patients with religious delusions are sicker than other psychotic patients. They may find it difficult to accept that they’re sick, because they’re convinced that their experiences are religious.

Yet Hanevik thinks it’s wrong to categorize all visions and voices as evidence of delusions,. Some experiences can be part of a healthy faith life.

Conversely, patients who do consider themselves religious don’t necessarily interpret their hallucinations as religious experiences.

If they do, they may run into problems with their faith. When vexing hallucinations are related to God, religion can turn into something negative. Then God is not longer a safe haven.

Ingrid had a good relationship with God before she began to feel that he was after her. The voice she heard and believed was God’s, changed from caring to uncomfortable and judgmental.

“This led to her losing her faith,” says Hanevik. She believes that religion can also affect people negatively. “But I don’t think any religion has a God who wants believers to make fools of themselves.

Tradition or illness?

Some of the patients that Hanevik talked to are afraid to talk about their faith because they fear that it will always be seen in light of their illness.

Social anthropologist Mona Kiil interviewed patients for her doctoral thesis who have mental disorders but are not psychotic. These individuals share the same concerns.

They believe in healing through rituals and that they can see the dead. And they’re afraid that psychologists will classify these experiences as signs of psychosis,” explains Kiil.

She thinks it’s all about what society regards as inside and outside of social boundaries.

“When you live in a community where this is part of the worldview, faith provides security for people. That isn’t psychosis. But faith can become a double-edged sword if it prevents them from participating in society,” says Kiil, who is doing her doctoral work at UiT - The Arctic University of Norway.

She encourages health care clinicians in to explore patients’ cultural backgrounds, to go into their stories and not categorize something as sick simply because they’ve never heard of it before.

But patients can also use religion as a drug, says Kiil. It's not necessarily healthy to numb the pain instead of dealing with the problems.

“People have a need to cling to something when things get difficult,” she says.

Hanevik agrees, but thinks that religion becomes more of a way to explain their experiences for patients with psychosis.

Normal religiosity

Kiil and Hanevik agree, however, that it is particularly difficult to separate religion from illness when the patient has a psychosis.

UiT ethnography professor Jens Ivar Nergård researched how young psychotic patients in Sweden built up their alternative reality understanding.

He found that a narrow interpretation of what is real in psychiatry poses a challenge for patients. Then they find support in understanding themselves in a religious space. But if you are psychotic and think you’re Jesus, you lose the possibility to be human. You take on religion to throw yourself out of the world.

Nergård thinks Hanevik offers an exciting contribution to the discussion of what can be considered normal religiosity and believes that healthcare professionals should think through questions like this.

“The boundaries between psychosis and religion may not be something they think about everyday,” he says.

Nuse. Ingrid P. 2016. “Hallucinations or spiritual experiences?”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

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