Mental Illness or Spiritual Emergencies? When Crisis is the Door to Transformation.

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Isha Aggarwal writes about her experiences of working with patients whose mental distress was a call to spiritual healing, and not merely the symptom of a disease.


For some time now, mental health has been seen as a medical deficit that needs to be fixed through medication and scientific interventions. However, for long before that, mental distress was addressed in spiritual capacities in many cultures worldwide. As humans became attuned to modern science, they became less attuned to their spiritual Selves; to the innate wisdom that exists within every single one of us, and the ability to decipher and resolve conflicts that arise within our souls.

Sometimes we may need the guidance of a spiritual mentor or experienced elder in navigating a mental health issue, but this individual will still focus on helping us help ourselves and access that innate wisdom. Somewhere along the way, we have lost our way to ourselves and I hope that one day we go back to where we started from: the complete trust in our intuition and wisdom of our psyche. 

Mentally Ill or Spiritually Gifted?

In 2022 I worked in a community mental health agency, working with individuals with severe mental health issues like psychosis and bipolar disorder. The vast majority of my clients were spiritual in some way or the other, leaning into mysticism, Christianity, Shamanism, and more to make sense of their difficult experiences. I remember one woman specifically who was experiencing psychic premonitions of a friend’s death; the friend ended up dying the next day. She lamented that her psychiatrist found her “crazy” and that no one believed her. I said, “(her name), if you are experiencing it, that means it’s real. Nothing you’re going through is crazy and these things actually happen a lot, but no one wants to talk about it” I validated her psychic premonitions, also called “paranoid delusions” in the medical world, completely against my clinical training.

I also had a client with bipolar disorder who felt God speaking to her in synchronicities, a very common experience of individuals with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She would see “angel number” repetitions around her and experience things that were too similar to be coincidences.

Another client with schizophrenia attempted suicide over ten times in her lifetime, and the last time was several years prior to our meetings, where she had prayed to “god” during a suicidal crisis and asked him what she should do, because she evidently did not want to live anymore. She stated that god saved her by explicitly speaking to her saying that her purpose in life now was so live for her grandchildren. And ever since then, she had minimal suicidal ideation because her purpose was solidified through communication from the highest power, knowing that she was on this Earth with a significant purpose. 

That’s when I realized that people with severe mental illness are actually gifted. Viewing mental “illness” as conflicts of the soul due to various reasons like birthing a healer, hypersensitivity, and ability to psychically perceive the spiritual realm can all bring us back to the wisdom that we all contain. Our bodies tell us stories with its experiences, and mental health experiences are just the body remembering the true nature of the soul that inhabits it. The veil is thin between the 3D reality and the 5D spirituality, and those who see through it are labelled as “mentally ill.” Changing the ways we view mental illness is the first step towards managing disturbing psychological experiences. 

In many parts of the world, mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and others are seen as brain disorders that need medication to fix. In other parts of the world, mental health disorders are actually seen as triggered by spiritual events and considered to be major components of spiritual experiences. Stanislav Grof is a Czech-born psychiatrist and is one of the primary developers of transpersonal psychology, a theoretical model that seeks to join the spiritual and the psychological realms. 

According to Grof & Grof (2017), a spiritual emergency is defined as “emotional and psychosomatic healing, creative problem-solving, personality transformation, and consciousness evolution… but also suggests the potential for rising to a higher state of being.” Often a person experiencing major shifts in the way they see the world, including an openness to new experiences, a feeling of bliss and unconditional love towards the world and self, and a deeper understanding of one’s purpose in the world. 

Grof states, “As spiritual disciplines are gaining popularity in the West, an increasing number of people are experiencing transpersonal crises that can be traced to their practice of yoga, Zen, various movement meditations, pranayama, Kundalini maneuvers, Tibetan Buddhist psychoenergetic exercises, Christian prayer, and other forms of deep and systematic spiritual involvement and self-exploration.” In other words, due to the increasing prevalence of spiritual practices around the world, more and more people are experiencing intense spiritual emergencies in the form of Kundalini awakenings, psychic abilities, Shamanic journeying, and more. 

Embracing Hyper-Sensitivity

The initiation of a spiritual emergency may lead to a psychological crisis. Some may experience bouts of mania, bipolar disorder, psychosis, depression, and more as they move through their spiritual experience and try to navigate it. Others might experience “mental illness” first after a circumstantial life crisis like the death of a loved one or a breakup, which propels them into a spiritual awakening that may look like major shifts in the way they see the world, including an openness to new experiences, a feeling of bliss and unconditional love towards the world and self, and a deeper understanding of one’s purpose in the world.

It is truly a chicken or the egg situation of whether mental illness or spiritual crisis comes first, but the bottom line is that individuals who experience mental health issues are more attuned to the spiritual world. 

The Shamanic view states that mental illness is actually the birth of a healer. Individuals with new mental health symptoms in Shamanic communities are celebrated, because the belief is that there is actually a healer that is waiting to be born, and the mental illnesses are seen as “blockages” in that energy. Mental illness here is seen as an initiation into promoting life as a healer on this Earth. In Shamanic customs, there is a special “receptivity to a flow of images and information, which cannot be controlled,” in schizophrenia, states Dr. Somé, an African Shaman. 

What is understood here is that individuals with mental illness are truly highly sensitive – sensitive to energies around them, sensitive emotionally, sensitive to the spirit world. This can be considered as a superpower if the overwhelm and intensity can be managed through spiritual practices, either with a trusted guide, or through meditation and other spiritual practices like holotropic breathwork.

Oftentimes what presents are oversensitivity is actually an acute attention to detail and the ability to feel emotions intensely, which, on its own, is not a bad thing. Radically accepting one’s self for the sensitivity they hold is the first step towards gaining mastery over it, with the understanding that there is nothing wrong with you if the world is unable to see and accept your gifts. 

What does this mean for the layperson struggling with mental health issues? With enough attunement to one’s intuition through meditation, breathwork, and any other spiritual practices that may resonate, an individual with mental illness and/or spiritual crisis can have some control and awareness of their experience so that any discomfort is alleviated. It is possible to have a spiritual crisis or an emerging mental illness without major crises with the help of spiritual practices.

Isha Aggarwal

Isha Aggarwal is a clinical social worker trained from Erikson Institute, Chicago, USA. She has worked in severe mental health, refugees, and trauma. She explores the link between mental illness and spirituality on the side and incorporates it into her clinical work with clients.


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