Rethinking Mental Illness: Are We Drugging Our Prophets And Healers?

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by Vironika Tugaleva

“How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?”

– Bob Marley

I met Ken by my own force. Seeing a comment he’d left on a friend’s blog post, I felt I needed to know him. Looking deeper, it turned out that he had a book about battling mental illness.

Fast forward just two weeks and I’m sitting glued to Ken’s book while visiting family. I finished it in two days. It wasn’t short. But if it hadn’t been for mealtimes, politeness, and sleeping, I’d have read it in one.

What struck me, throughout Ken’s entire mental illness (which included hospitalization, hallucinations, and eventual psychiatric commitment) were three things:

  1. Everyone thought he was crazy and dangerous because Ken gained abilities that some people vie to access with daily meditation and ceremony.
  2. Our current mental health care system hasn’t progressed since the asylum days as much as we’d like to think: physical straitjackets replaced by chemical ones.
  3. Mental illness is a dream so bad that, if you’re lucky or well-supported, you might just realize you’re dreaming and wake up in a world where everyone else is still asleep.

Ken and I swapped books. He was reading The Love Mindset while I read his book, Detour From Normal. As he consumed my book in equally record time, he became incredibly emotional in his communications. He told me he read my eulogy to Veronika Wilde and that she sounded like every woman he met in the psych wards. He said he was fully in the “love mindset” when he was manic, but since he didn’t end up there purposefully, he wasn’t seen as a guru or a master. He was just another crazy guy who needed to be doped up.

He realized he wasn’t the only one; he wasn’t crazy, and he certainly didn’t need medications. He needed some sleep, support, and encouragement to become the healer that he’s now blossoming into.

After I had consumed his book’s satisfying ending, Ken’s story planted itself in my mind, interweaving his memories with my own.

I had my first vivid hallucinations when I was 18. My then boyfriend looked at me like I was a psycho. I had incredible amounts of nightmares and flashbacks that accompanied my healing – all of them allowing me to process the traumatic events. And what if I’d thought I was a psycho? What if I took the pills I was offered? Would I still be here?

In my favorite book of all time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancethe main character becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about reality, a truth so beautiful and ancient that few could deny. He eventually got electroshock treatment for his so-called dangerous mental illness.

An old friend of mine, whose art is so captivating you could stare at it for hours, was put on Ritalin for drawing in math class.

Sam Shelley, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After engaging in frequent and dedicated meditation she came forth symptom-free, ready to help heal the world.

With all these stories in my head, it was hard to sleep. A darkness loomed over me – the darkness of a realization too painful to digest.

Our mental health care system is breaking people. We have no room for the sacred, only normal.

The narrow range of accepted behavior expected from us is more oppressive than you might realize. That is, until we experience beyond it, until we get judged, until we don’t fit in, until we need fixing.

In Dr. Somé’s village, the symptoms we commit people for, Dr. Somé’s community recognize as marks of a healer. They respect and nourish the very same patterns that we condemn and drug.

The article is worth a read. To be honest, I have a hard time with his explanations for why he says mental illness happens, but I don’t need to agree with him about how something happens to acknowledge that it does happen.

We’re taking people with a completely different perceptual experience and calling it “wrong”.

We’re weeding out our geniuses. We’re killing off our prophets. We’re drugging our messiahs.

Were she alive today, Sylvia Plath would be on anti-depressants. Salvador Dali would be on anti-psychotics. Beethoven would be on Lithium. Newton would likely be committed as well as heavily drugged for his multiple, pervasive mental illness symptoms.

Don’t even get me started on Jesus Christ.

Heroin addiction is as much a symptom of spiritual malaise as it is a cure. Michael Largo, in his book, Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Age, makes the powerful argument that many of the geniuses who pushed our culture forward perished from the psychic strain of doing so. 

If you’re thinking that medications would have decreased these people’s suffering while allowing their gifts and talents to be explored, I’d suggest reading Ken’s book for a sobering look at the effects of Lithium. Then, go on Google and look up some common mental illness medications, their symptoms, and their side effects.

Perhaps the drugs would have prevented some suicides, though even that is questionable (as you’ll find on your search – many medications have been linked to suicide). But suppose they had. Then we’d have artificially extended their lifespans allowing them fade into obscurity, known by few, admired by fewer.

The real tragedy is that, in Dr. Somé’s village, while they respect the “mentally ill”, they appreciate that these people require an incredible amount of support.

How unfortunate that, in our society, those who refuse to take medications don’t have anything to catch them when hey stumble. There are no people willing to support and celebrate their new abilities.

There’s only the pain and the desire to get rid of it.

Option A: Medication.

Option B: The Ledge.

So what do we do? Where do we go? Where could Ken have gone and who could he have talked to about his experiences? How could Sylvia Plath have used her gifts without them killing her? How can the thousands of people in our culture who are suffering from mental and emotional distress get some genuine support, some help, some respect?

How can we turn our mental health centers into places of healing and growth, rather than confinement and apathy? How can we nurture the experiences of people who are perceiving differently from us in such a way that they can become stable and we can become wiser from having empathized with their perspective?

How can we all come together and build the sort of society that Dr. Somé speaks of, the sort of society that already exists somewhere – one that respects people unconditionally?

Most importantly, how can we take mental illness activism past its current stagnation and start equating the mentally suffering with the same seriousness as the physically suffering?

When someone is physically ill, we take pains to expose them to society; when someone is mentally ill our goal is to ostracize them.

How can we recognize the healers in those who are, themselves, healing?

How can we learn to see beyond the categories we created and gaze, instead, into the beautiful glowing orbs of consciousness that defy categorization?

How can the scientists, the spiritualists, the philosophers, and the dancers come together and speak of their unique perspectives, each learning from the other? How can the manic, the depressed, the bored, the generous, and the needy come together, dropping their labels, to learn from each other?

How can each material human life be allowed to matter? How can we build a world where no one has to rot in an interiorly-decorated cage? How can we stop arguing, for a second, so that we can hear ourselves agreeing?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t. But this is not really about answers. This is about questions.

I read in an old book once:

“Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.”

Not knowing is the beginning of knowing.

And that’s what this is all about. This is about asking, and continuing to ask, until we make it work. This is about standing up and pointing out that the current state of our mental “health” care is not human, it’s mechanistic. As we’ve seen in cases like Ken’s, it’s cruel. And, as we’ve seen in cases like Robin Williams, it’s not always us that needs fixing, but the way in which we fix.

I hope no one takes this personally, because even if you’re working every day to support the system and doing your best, you are not the system. None of us are the system. There is no system. There’s only us – human beings – doing our best.

Our inability to think differently about mental illness no one’s fault, but it is our responsibility. We can all come together and decide to do better. We deserve it.

Your ideas on this are welcome. That’s where it all starts – brainstorming and sharing. You’re invited to do so below in the comments section.


About the author: Like every human being, Vironika Tugaleva is an ever-changing mystery. At the time of writing this, she was a life coach, digital nomad, and award-winning author of two books (The Love Mindset and The Art of Talking to Yourself). She spent her days writing, dancing, singing, running, doing yoga, going on adventures, and having long conversations. But that was then. Who knows what she’s doing now? Keep up at www.vironika.org.


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2 COMMENTS

  1. This was phenomenal. Thank you for writing such a strong piece and canvassing the different perspectives on mental health/illness.

    Different is always subjected to a superior/inferior perspective and minimizes the nature of the difference. These thoughts and experiences you’ve shared are enlightening – thank you.

  2. You make some valid points, but I think you also leave out valid points. As a clinical intern in mental health, I do assessments and treatment. I’ve been trained to look at a person’s circumstances as a plane, with ridges and valleys. We all have those ridges and valleys, but I only consider 2 questions when looking at it: is the ridge or valley statistically significant, and more importantly, do that parts that are statistically significant significantly affect the client’s life. It isn’t about normal whatever that is, but about the client and how they perceive normal. I am not able to write prescriptions, nor do I first think to refer someone to a person who can medicate. But sometimes medication is necessary. There are times when it is way overused, but the necessity is still there.

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