Interview By Susan Tomlinson
CRAZYWISE – a new documentary explores the links between psychosis and spiritual awakening and tracks the new movements across the world that are reframing mental health as a potentially transformative experience. Frontiers Magazine interviews the US director, Phil Borges.
What led you to make the documentary CRAZYWISE?
It came out of my human rights work with tribal and indigenous people. I began meeting some of the healers and visionaries in their communities and was surprised to find out that many were identified in their youth by having what we might call a psychotic break. Many were hearing voices, seeing visions, often feeling terrified and typically an elder would take them aside and let them know they had a very special sensitivity and guide them through their initiation as a healer for the community.
Is our mental health system in crisis? And if so why?
Yes. If you look at the mental health disability rates, they have gone up almost fourfold in the last 30 years; in the prison population it is estimated that 56% have a mental disorder and some say 50% of the homeless population has a mental disorder.
If you look at the mental health disability rates, they have gone up almost fourfold in the last 30 years
The national Institute of Mental Health in the US estimates that one in five Americans will have a psychological crisis in their lifetime. 20% of the American population is taking a prescription psychoactive pharmaceutical drug and suicide rates have increased 24% in the last 20 years.
At the same time the sales of our main treatment option, pharmaceutical medication, has increased 8000% in that same time period.
(Phil is referring to figures from the US.)
After making this film have your thoughts around the term “mental illness” changed?
Yes definitely. I used to think it was the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. That seems to be the common public perception. I now look at it as a natural transformational process waiting to happen. Unfortunately our culture does not look at it this way and so there is little support in helping the individual find meaning and purpose in their suffering.
Spiritual transformation or broken brain – are there pros and cons to each framework?
The broken brain paradigm has several problems. Number one: it frightens the individual. If you have an expert telling you your brain is broken or diseased and there’s no cure that can be a very frightening and self-fulfilling diagnosis.
diagnosis itself isolates the person through stigma
Secondly the diagnosis itself isolates the person through stigma. Most of these diagnoses carry a very negative connotation. And third, this disempowers the individual suffering – what can you do about a broken brain with no cure? Suppressing the symptoms with medication becomes the only answer.
However, calling it a spiritual transformation can also have problems. The term “spiritual” means different things to different people. If “spirituality” is defined as anything that connects you to yourself, to those around you, to the environment and eventually to the entire universe, then a spiritual transformation makes sense.
Is there a difference in what we would typically call “first episode psychosis” recovery rates between the West and the developing world?
Yes. The World Health Organisation did a study in 1968, repeated it in 1974 and then again in 1998 and it shows that recovery rates from schizophrenia occur much more frequently in the developing world than in North America or Western Europe.
As a society, what are some of the first steps we need to take to redefine a psychological experience as transformative, rather than pathological?
That’s a good question! I think it will come from a groundswell of people demanding change. The people most likely to be behind that groundswell are those with ‘lived experience’ who have successfully navigated mental health crises, and are now speaking out.
You talk about a survivor-led movement – what does this look like?
The survivor-led movement has largely grown through on-line connections. People have been able to come out of the shadows and form support groups — and there are many of these groups evolving across the world: The Hearing Voices Network, the Icarus project, The Spiritual Crisis Network etc. And the one thing they all have in common is to change the paradigm describing and governing the way we define and treat what is often called mental illness.
In one of your interviews, the Cuban born medical anthropologist and psychologist Alberto Villoldo, mentions that the human brain is wired for spirituality – can you explain what he means?
I believe he means we are all wired to come to the realisation that we are a part of the whole we call the universe. Einstein said that most of us see ourselves as separate from the universe and that this delusion of consciousness is our prison.
Canadian neuroscientist, Professor Gabor Maté, explains in another interview that there is intelligence between nature and creation and to ignore this creates suffering for ourselves and others. Can you elaborate?
He explained that there is intelligence in nature and creation. We are part of that creation and also part of that intelligence. When we see ourselves as separate, that isolation and otherness creates suffering.
Is there a danger of over-romanticising indigenous cultures and condemning Western medicines?
Yes definitely. Indigenous people are not free of mental health issues. However they tend to be more connected to each other in their small communities, and to the land. This connection to the environment makes for very deep meaning, as their beliefs and metaphors put spiritual energy into the mountains, rivers and forests.
connection to the environment makes for very deep meaning
CRAZYWISE is not an anti-medication film. Everyone we interviewed said medication has a place in treatment – especially if someone is in an extreme crisis. The problems come because we all want a quick fix and unfortunately, there is no quick fix to the transformational process. It takes time, knowledge and support. As a consequence medications have been way over prescribed, especially now in children.
In the film, UCLA professor, Dr Daniel Siegel, describes the brain as a “social organ,” – what does he mean by this?
He means the brain is wired for connection with others. We all need community to survive.
What’s your feeling about the importance of community for someone who is undergoing a psychological crisis? What does that community look like?
Community is extremely important for all of us but it’s especially important for someone in crisis. Ideally that community would contain people who have successfully navigated a crisis and supportive members of the individual’s social network: family, friends, lovers and employers.
After talking to so many different people, what would you say are the factors needed to create flourishing emotional and mental health?
I think one of the main things is mindfulness. Being mindful of our feelings and allowing ourselves to experience emotions whether they’re painful or joyful.
Community is extremely important for all of us but it’s especially important for someone in crisis.
Suppressing our unpleasant emotions keeps us stuck in a very uncomfortable place.
Once we have made friends with ourselves, and with our authenticity, we can then be compassionate and connected with others. It is these connections that are the basis of our mental health.
And finally, after making this film, what would you now do if someone you loved had a psychological crisis?
First of all I would listen to them deeply, and listen without judgment, or without being a reality cop.
I would then share with them some of the things I have learnt while making this film. If they were open to it, I would seek out the people that hold a holistic and integrative view of mental healthcare and help them form a community of support so they can create their own transformation.
CRAZYWISE premiers in London as part of Mental Health Awareness Week on the 12th May. Members of the CRAZYWISE team are just one of the many supporters of a new grassroots movement, called Emerging Proud, which calls for the current mental health framework to evolve into a more holistic, human centred service.