A shaman and spiritual healer once explained to me that in his culture, an indigenous rainforest tribe of Equatorial Western Africa, depression is something incomprehensible. It’s simply not something they can relate to, in fact, he told me, the first time Westerners described this malaise to the chiefs in their village, members of the tribe actually laughed out loud, for it seemed so odd and extraordinary to them. How can anyone not be happy when possessing the greatest gift of all, the gift life, they inquired.
In the West, depression and other so-called mental disorders are a very real fact of life for many. This cannot be denied, and to combat these disorders, we’ve developed a full catalogue to describe them, and have created an entire professional medical discipline for diagnosing and treating them, with the result that depression has become an enormously profitable sector of the healthcare industry.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health provides public information on depression, and while their website fails to comment on its potential causes, it does elaborate on risk factors and contemporary treatments which take a purely allopathic approach which lacks the possibility of actually overcoming depression.
“Depression, even the most severe cases, can be treated. The earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is. Depression is usually treated with medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. If these treatments do not reduce symptoms, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other brain stimulation therapies may be options to explore.” [Source]
Pills, expensive, continual professional therapy, and electro-shock treatment. With this as the basic plan for confronting depression, it is indeed a hopeless condition, but we now know much more about depression, and the problem deserves a more holistic review.
Drawing from my personal experience in having beaten serious depression, from my experiences with shamanic plant medicines where I’ve witnessed many people fully conquer depression, and from the ever-growing body of scientific study on the matter, here are 4 things you should know about depression and spiritual illness.
I’ve compiled this summary not as medical advice to anyone seeking help, but merely as a source of contemplation on the matter, as a contribution to conversation on mental health and spiritual wellness.
1.) Pharmaceutical antidepressants are a trap, and they may in fact be making depression worse, not better. The model of viewing depression as a purely chemical imbalance is incomplete and while serotonin does clearly have an effect on mood, we don’t fully understand how this works. The side-effects and risks of using antidepressants are well-documented, and quite dreadful, even including an increased risk of suicide.
2.) Depression may be rooted in physical and physiological issues, being more than just an intangible malaise of the mind. Inflammation of the body has been proven to be a factor, which is something that can be addressed with diet and nutrition.
“A multitude of studies now show an undeniable link between gut dysfunction and the brain, chiefly by revealing the relationship between the volume of inflammatory markers in the blood and risk for depression. Higher levels of inflammatory markers, which often indicate that the body’s immune system is on high alert, significantly increase the risk of developing depression.” ~Kelly Brogan, M.D.
Furthermore, exploration of the relationship between mental health and the body’s microbiome has demonstrated that properly supporting the body’s bacterial eco-system can positively affect depression.
“I don’t even talk about it as a psychiatric condition any more. It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health.” –George Slavich, clinical psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles
3.) There is a spiritual component to depression, which is not addressed with modern medicine, as spirituality is a subject which evades material science. Anecdotal and experiential evidence, therefore must be given more weight in this discussion.
The shamanic plant medicines Ayahuasca and Iboga trigger intense spiritual journeys which are known to reveal the very personal causes of depression and other mental disturbances, while creating an opportunity to release trauma and self-destructive patterns of thought. In some cases, properly facilitated shamanic journeys can even induce a form of spiritual exorcism, where the patient can permanently expel the unseen influences of negative spiritual energies in their life.
“Another way to say this, which may make more sense to the Western mind, is that we in the West are not trained in how to deal or even taught to acknowledge the existence of psychic phenomena, the spiritual world.” ~Stephanie Marohn
Furthermore, research into the therapeutic benefits of LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA and ketamine, add supporting evidence to the hypothesis that metaphysical experiences can aid in treatment of depression.
4.) Depression may be a warning for our society, a canary in the coal mine, if you will, giving us a clue that something is deeply out of balance in our modern world and must be addressed. This could be an endemic spiritual crisis, a sign of our warped relationship with nature, or a type of blowback we suffer as a result of the inherent violence and injustice in our culture.
“In the shamanic view… mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.” ~Stephanie Marohn
The shamanic view of spiritual illness also includes the importance of ritual, initiation, rites of passages and ceremony in life as paths of maturation for the spirit, all of which have been replaced culturally with materialism, consumerism, distraction and the shattering of communal living.
“The abandonment of ritual can be devastating. From the spiritual view, ritual is inevitable and necessary if one is to live. To say that ritual is needed in the industrialized world is an understatement. We have seen in my own people that it is probably impossible to live a sane life without it.” ~Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé, Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community
There is no single idea, model, or solution that fits every case of depression, for suffering of this nature is intensely personal and individual. That said, there are major pieces of the puzzle absent from the established Western medical/therapeutical/pharmaceutical model of treatment, which when considered, greatly add to our understanding of depression.
“I took my doctors recommendations and took the pills, but I quickly realized that the side-effects and the personality changes that the drugs induced in me were not something that I, nor my family, could live with. I dumped them, cancelled all remaining appointments and resolved to heal myself. It was not easy.” ~Dylan Charles