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Harris Friedman on Transpersonal Psychology

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Harris Friedman

EM: Your special interest is “transpersonal psychology.” What is transpersonal psychology?

HF: Transpersonal psychology is a subfield of psychology focused on correcting a number of limitations within mainstream psychology, including the belief that individuals are separate and isolated rather than profoundly interconnected with others, the world, and the cosmos, and that ordinary states of consciousness experienced in the West should be used as the standard of normalcy and health as opposed to extraordinary states of consciousness as exemplified by advanced meditators and people having peak experiences. Although there is little consensus in defining the subfield, one of the best definitions of transpersonal psychology can be seen by looking at the Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, which I recently co-edited; in its many chapters are disparate views that, taken together, give a broad overview of this approach.

EM: You are involved with the Center for Spirituality and Health. What is that and what are your thoughts on the relationship between spirituality and emotional and mental health?

HF: The Center for Spirituality and Health is an interdisciplinary group at the University of Florida that is interested in the relationship between spirituality and health broadly defined, including physical and mental health, as well as the health of the earth and more. If spirituality is defined as something supernatural, including beliefs in the supernatural, I see no relationship between it and health that cannot be otherwise accounted for through more mundane variables. However, if spirituality is defined in a more transpersonal way without invoking supernatural explanations, then it may relate to individual, societal, and planetary health. Little good research has yet been done on this possible connection, however.

EM: You’re also interested in the relationship between psychology and social justice. Can you share some of your thoughts on that?

HF: Some might misconstrue psychology as a value-free science, but values pervade all areas of psychology and other human endeavors. From the questions that might interest a researcher or the type of work that might attract a practitioner to how these are pursued, values play a role. For me, social justice is an important value and how I do research and applied psychology is framed by that and by the other values I hold.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens, and adults?

HF: The current dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders is quite limited for the most part. In view of transpersonal psychology’s challenges to the notion of individuals as separate from their context, seeing most mental disorders as problems within individuals denies the context.

Poverty, war, family strife, a superficial culture emphasizing materialism over deeper values, and many more contexts can be seen as causes of many, but not all, mental disorders. It is absurd to diagnose hungry, unloved children with untreated dental problems who live in untenable environments replete with drive-by shootings as being mentally ill and giving them traditional psychological treatments or psychotropic drugs. This is not to deny that some people have biological issues for which psychotropic drugs could help, especially in short-term situations while more lasting solutions are found. In essence, I think we have a broken mental health system due to embracing fundamental assumptions that are invalid.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

HF: Given a range of possibilities, I would probably try to harness conventional pathways but, knowing what I know, I would hope I could help a loved one find an approach that would be minimally harmful and maximally helpful. That might or might not include psychotropic medications, and probably would include psycho-educational or growth-oriented, including transpersonal, psychotherapies.


Harris Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical and organizational consulting psychologist, as well as a scholar of both transpersonal psychology and cultural change. He recently retired as a Research Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, where he remains on its courtesy faculty, and now teaches part-time at Goddard College, as well as supervises dissertations at several universities. He publishes books and professional articles, conducts grant-funded research, and is Senior Editor of the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies and Associate Editor of The Humanistic Psychologist.

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