Rethinking madness

Posted Jan 27, 2015

I can't remember how, but I did. I found this great movie that has yet to be released. And I got excited. It portrays psychosis in a wider, more inclusive perspective than I had ever seen. I knew I needed to get in touch with the people behind the project. And I did. Phil Borges and his team have created a documentary that illustrates an additional way of looking at mental illness. It's unusual and doesn't apply to everyone who experiences psychosis. He makes it clear "obviously (this doesn't apply to) everyone who has a severe mental emotional crisis," but for those it does, it may be refreshing and a relief. Watching some of the clips, I felt less alone and more validated. Thank you Borges and your team. Because of that, I asked him to share a post here on my blog about the film.

CRAZYWISE - The film

Borges writes:

When a young person experiences a frightening break from reality, Western experts usually label it a "first-episode psychosis" while some psychologists and cultures define it as a “spiritual awakening.” The documentary CRAZYWISE reveals remarkably effective treatment approaches and a survivor led movement challenging a mental health system in crisis.

Twenty years ago, I was invited to watch a young monk named Thupten Ngodrup go into trance and "channel" the State Oracle of Tibet (The Nechung Oracle). It took place in a small monastery next to the Dalai Lama’s residence in the little Himalayan town of Dharamsala, India. As the monks began to chant and beat their drums, Thupten’s eyes rolled back, his face flushed, and he began to speak in a high-pitched voice. A few monks gathered around him and began writing down everything he said. After a few minutes, he collapsed and had to be carried from the room. At the time, I didn’t know what to think of what I had seen. Was this a dramatization?

Thupten in trance
The Medium (in Tibet, the Kuten) preparing to go into trance in order to "channel" the protector spirit of the Tibetan people known as the Nechung Oracle.

Two days later, my friend Mick Brown, a journalist for The Daily Telegraph in London, invited me to sit in on an interview with Thupten. When Brown asked him how he became the medium (or kuten), he described having a mental-emotional crisis that included severe anxiety, hearing voices, and electrical jolts through his body. He said he was terrified and even thought he was dying until an older monk took him aside, told him he had a gift, became his mentor, and over time taught him how to enter and return from the trance state.

As I continued my work documenting human rights issues in indigenous and tribal communities, I started seeking out the individuals we call Shamans—people who go into non-ordinary states of consciousness to act as healers or seers for their community. I was fascinated to learn that many of them, like Thupten, were identified in their late teens or 20s by having what we in our culture would call a nervous breakdown or psychotic break.

Adam Gentry
Adam Gentry was extremely athletic as a child and popular in high school. He became a black belt in Karate at age 6 and was becoming a professional wakeboard champion when he had his first psychological crisis.

Just two years ago, I met Adam Gentry, a sensitive and bright 26-year-old employee of Whole Foods grocery store in Redmond, Washington. He had experienced a psychological crisis in his early 20s and was hospitalized and put on medication

After four years of severe side effects, Adam quit his medication and decided to attend a 10-day meditation retreat. It helped him so much that he did two more retreats. He started working at Whole Foods and began to settle into a more normal existence.

When he went to do another meditation retreat, he was turned away when they learned of his previous mental diagnosis. Shortly afterward, Adam found it difficult to do his work and quit his job. He soon became homeless and moved into his car. When winter set in, he sold his car and bought a ticket to Maui. While living on the beach, he was beaten by a gang, lost many of his teeth, had his jaw broken in three places, and was almost killed.

Unfortunately, Adam’s story is not all that unusual. Today many people labeled with a mental illness end up homeless or in jail.

Later I met Ekhaya Esima, a Peer Counselor in Brooklyn, New York. She's come a long way from a history of child abuse through psychosis to become a very successful Peer Counselor. Her experience includes attempts at suicide, hospitalization, finding help at a peer recovery center, and finding her spirituality through her African lineage.  This short clip will give a brief glimpse into her journey. Other clips from the film can be found here.

Ekhaya’s first ray of hope for recovery came when she found the peer-led mental health organization, Baltic Street, in New York. The second profound moment in her healing came when she met her mentor, a South African Sangoma and began her initiation and training in this age-old tradition.

Obviously not everyone who has a severe mental emotional crisis will undergo a shamanic initiation. However, when I think about all the Shamans I interviewed who had had what we call in the West a severe psychotic episode and went on to become the respected healers in their communities, I can clearly understand how this training helped Ekhaya.

First of all, her experience was reframed from being the result of a diseased brain, which carries a stigmatized label, to a process, although challenging, that can lead to spiritual growth. Secondly, she was given a peer who could guide and comfort her—her Sangoma had a severe episode herself.  And third, Ekhaya was shown that her own crisis had given her potential as a healer, which gave her life meaning and a roll in her community. It’s what most survivors of mental illness are now advocating for—hope for recovery, peer support, and not to be set apart with stigmatized labels.

While doing research for the film, we discovered a grassroots movement of people with lived experience and a passionate group of renowned mental health professionals and scholars who are advocating for alternatives to the bio-medical based standards by which most mental illness is currently defined and treated. These movements include successful treatment approaches like Open Dialogue in Northern Finland and new organizations and treatments like Peer-to-Peer counseling, the National Empowerment Center, the Hearing Voices Network, and the Icarus Project.

Phil Borges is a Social Documentary Photographer and Filmmaker.

For more than 25 years, Borges has been documenting indigenous and tribal cultures striving to create an understanding of the challenges they face. As an experience public speaker, he has lectured at multiple TED talks and conferences. Borges’ award-winning books and photographic exhibitions have been seen around the world, he has hosted documentaries for Discovery and National Geographic and directed numerous short documentaries on gender issues for organizations such as UN Women, CARE, and ReSurge.