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Alternative Explanations of Mental Illness

Mental illnesses, especially psychoses have been traditionally viewed by modern western medicine as chemical/physical in nature and this viewpoint forms the foundation of treatment/management options. For example Schizophrenia may often begin with an acute psychotic episode followed by ongoing chronic symptoms. The allopathic medical model will treat the acute episode with rest and medication, to dampen the psychotic hallucinations. A diagnosis is eventually made by a psychiatrist and an ongoing management plan for the diagnosed condition then begins. The plan will involve such things as: prescription of medication (psychotropic drugs), other medications as indicated; monitoring the response and, if needed, changing medications or doseages; rest; behaviour management strategies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy; lifestyle changes to decrease stress and allow the person to live with the condition in the context of what is manageable and acceptable within our western culture.

The diagnosis by the psychiatrist is made with the aid of a book titled "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders". The current text is version 4 including a recent text revision, so this diagnostic aid is usually called the DSM-IV TR. Diagnoses are necessarily subjective because there is no underlying physical basis of most or all the conditions listed in the DSM-IV. The strategy of managing the symptoms with psychotropic drugs is useful in that it can prevent such things as physical injury or even suicide during acute episodes. As an ongoing management plan the medical drugs can also allow the person some level of self controlled existence within the rules of our culture. It is useful to also remove our cultural blinkers and, in this wider perceptive mode, consider other possible explanations of psychotic and even many other types of our labelled illnesses. Two psychiatrists who removed their blinkers are Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina Grof.

Dr. Grof and Christina became frustrated with the often poor prognosis for many patients treated according to the assumptions underlying the modern medical model of mental illness. They wondered if there were other valid explanations of the phenomena. Their line of enquiry eventually lead them to an appreciation of what they termed Spiritual Emergencies. They found, that for some individuals, a better explanation of the psychotic symptoms was that the person was experiencing a rapid spiritual growth episode and this explanation leads to an entirely different management plan for the symptoms.

In the current DSM-IV there is a relatively new category "Religious or Spiritual Problem" authored by David Lukoff, PhD. but due in part to the pioneering work of Dr. Grof and Christina who first developed the following criteria for ascertaining spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency:

  • Episodes of unusual experiences that involve changes in consciousness and in perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and psychosomatic functioning, in which there is a significant transpersonal emphasis in the process, such as dramatic death and (re)birth sequences, mythological and archetypal phenomena, past incarnation memories, out-of-body experiences, incidence of synchroniciaties or extrasensory perception, intense energetic phenomena (Kundalini Awakening), states of mystical union, identification with cosmic consciousness.
  • The ability to see the condition as an inner psychological process and approach it in an internalized way; the capacity to form an adequate working relationship and maintain the spirit of cooperation. These criteria exclude people with severe paranoid states, persecutory delusions, and hallucinations; and those who consistently use the mechanism of projection, exteriorization and acting out. (Grof & Grof, 1986).

The new category in the DSM-IV "V62.89 Religious or Spiritual Problem" suggests the use of this category when the 'focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem'. Some examples given are, distressing experiences concerning loss or questioning of faith, questioning of spiritual values such questioning not necessarily being related to an organised church or religious institution, problems related to conversion to a new faith.

When all of the criteria mentioned immediately above are considered it would seem that an individual truly experiencing a spiritual or religious crisis who is diagnosed as exhibiting a psychotic and especially a chronic psychotic mental illness may find themselves in an unfortunate situation. Their spiritual emergence processes would be treated as psychotic symptoms and they may be given anti-psychotic medications for a significant portion of the remainder of their lives. Dr. Grof and Christina Grof were able to help individuals experiencing spiritual emergencies/emergence by an initial more adequate diagnosis and then a treatment regime that did not thwart the symptomology with medical drugs.

Other practitioners are now devising new methods to help individuals in spiritual crises. One person at the forefront in this area is Emma Bragdon. She has authored publications in this area including 'A Sourcebook for Helping People With Spiritual Problems'. Information about her books is here.

BioChemical Individuality - The Pfeiffer/Walsh Approach

The late Dr. Carl Pfeiffer pioneered much work in biochemical imbalances and their relationship with nutritional treatment of schizophrenia. In 1976 he collaborated with volunteers from the Argonne National Laboratory and broadened the research base to include other 'mental illnesses'. After his death in 1988 the Pfeiffer Treatment Centre Health Research Institute was established. Dr. Pfeiffer also worked closely with Dr. William Walsh who had collected a huge pool of data from his research work with prisoners and ex-offenders concerning the causes of their violent behaviour. The collaborative effort led Dr. Walsh to the development of individualized nutrient protocols to normalize body chemistry and brain chemistry. Dr. Walsh went on to study more than 30,000 patients with mental disorders acquiring an enormous database of more than 3 million chemical assays during his clinical and research work.

Today Dr. William Walsh via The Walsh Institute continues the work of nutritional treatment of biochemical imbalances. Treatments have been successful for a range of conditions including:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Asperger's
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Early Stage Alzheimer's
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Mood Disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiey

The importance of the influence of neurotransmitters is well documented and generally accepted in the medical community. The Walsh Institute says that, "Most persons with these disorders were born with a predisposition for these problems due to genetically-aberrant levels of specific neurotransmitters. Our mental health is dependent upon having the proper amounts of these critical brain chemicals." Dr. William Walsh often gives the example, based upon his own experience, that Psychiatrists scorn the efficacy of nutrient therapies, suggesting that they are too puny to have any real clinical potency. Psychiatrists often say "You really need a drug medication to get the job done for a serious condition like depression". Dr Walsh says his favourite response starts by asking the question, "Where do our neurotransmitters come from?".

Dr. Walsh's response is an intriguing question indeed. The psychiatric drugs play with neurotransmitter behaviour e.g. a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI) will change the behaviour across the synaptic gap such that more Serotonin remains to aid in transmission across the synapses. However Dr. Walsh's approach is to boost the natural systems in the body that are responsible for the production of Serotonin. Dr. Walsh's research suggests that when this is done successfully there is 'enough' Serotonin' in the system and the 'deficiencies' the psychiatric drugs are playing with are no longer a problem. Other benefits of this approach are significantly less side effects and no drug addictions occur.

All the above and much more is explained in Dr. Walsh's book Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain. There is also an interesting collection of comments by Dr. Walsh on the nutritional treatment of mental disorders here.

For a list of doctors trained in the Pfeiffer/Walsh protocols in Australia visit BioBalance.