by Dr. Heather Herington, ND, DHANP

You walk past a woman, hair askew, muttering to herself. A man looks at the woman fearfully, steps out of her way. The woman’s muttering becomes louder. You too look away.

You’d think by the way we act that mental illness is contagious. It scares us, causes us shame and embarrassment, and makes us ridicule, reject and finally isolate a person as if he/she has an infectious disease. Perhaps we do this because deep down we know that not one of us is immune.

What is mental illness? What is the cause? Is mental illness caused by genetics, poor coping skills, poor social skills? A reaction to a dysfunctional family? Is there anything positive about the experience? Is there a chance of growth and discovery? Is our anxiety, depression or even paranoia simply trying to give us a deeper message?

Nutritional medicine, in both allopathic and naturopathic circles, points to biochemical imbalances in the brain, nutrient deficiencies or toxicity as the cause of much mental distress. This is true, but it isn’t the whole picture. Sometimes, no matter what a person eats or takes in as nutritional supplementation, he or she still struggles with profound psychological issues.

“Spiritual emergency” is a term used by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and “psychospiritual overwhelm” is a term coined by psychiatrist Peter Breggin to describe the state of mental illness. Both phrases take the mystery out of the diagnosis–whatever it is–by describing a process. It connotes an experience, not a stigmatized label that can last a lifetime.

A Personal Experience
Think about how you feel when you think of the mentally ill, of people diagnosed with a psychosis. Do you feel empathy, anxiety, judgment? Have you ever thought about how you would like to be treated if it happened to you?

Being overwhelmed or encumbered by life’s events is something we can all relate to. We feel anxious, sad, frightened, depressed or frustrated at certain times. Our centre drops like a yo-yo that has lost its swing. When nothing can be found to offer relief, we spiral down and down until drugs are offered. Maybe hospitalization. Talk therapy if we are lucky. When all else fails, electro-convulsive shock therapy is suggested.

Liz Thor-Larsen, editor of The Bulletin, the newsletter of the Vancouver Richmond Mental Health Network suggests, “Psychosis is a temporary response, not a life-long condition, similar to a runny nose when we have a cold.” If this is true, what can we do to empower those undergoing mental distress?

Unravel the Cause
Just as we learn to read the signs of an impending cold, we can learn to interpret the deeper cause and meaning of psychological overwhelm. By taking time to explore our feelings instead of reacting to them, we can make headway.

Feelings in themselves are nothing to fear. Rather, they are something to celebrate if we see them as guideposts to a deeper truth. We don’t want to deny them; they are there for a reason. They may be a message to us that something is not right. By deciphering them early on we have the chance to negate their snowballing effect.

It’s important to remember that no matter how filled with emotion a person is, the body-mind is always doing its best to regain equilibrium. But often we need prodding to grapple with uncomfortable feelings, to get to their root.

I’ve known several people who have committed suicide because of being wrapped tightly in deep emotion, unable to dig themselves out. Deep emotion is not something we understand well in this society. It is reserved for poets and artists.

Parents of people diagnosed 25 mentally ill often say “she was too sensitive” or “she gets so emotional” as if either of these qualities was a bad thing. However, the mind, not only that of a sensitive child or adult, thrives on rhythm, imagination and metaphors. Our subconscious feeds on dreams to create, to problem solve, to come to terms with what is in the waking world. And feelings, often metaphors of a deeper truth, can lead us to greater awareness.

Navigate Feelings
Tracking, a process developed by psychologist Dr Vern Woolf (see, is an extraordinary and relatively simple way to unravel the meaning of emotion. It uses our imagination and our senses–sight, sound, colour, texture and smell–to navigate, to understand the positive intent of uncomfortable feelings. It can be used to make sense of the “voices” heard in schizophrenia.

Creative approaches, such as music, art, visualization or tracking channel emotion and our senses into a realm we can understand. Not only do they take the pressure off of a potentially explosive and disempowering personal experience, but they can also be used to discover our own uniqueness. They enable us to know ourselves in ways we never thought possible and ultimately, to make us stronger in what is often an alienating and stress-inducing world.