Is it a spiritual crisis or mental illness?


A spiritual crisis is when someone’s identity, purposes, values, attitudes, goals, or beliefs, are drastically challenged, often by unforeseen events. This results in upheaval and a dramatic change in focus in their lives. It may or may not involve a mystical spiritual experience, and it may or may not trigger a mystical spiritual experience.

It may cause a great deal of disruption in your life, on all levels including psychological, emotional, social, and daily function including work. Usually it is some worldly event that triggers a spiritual crisis, and it may involve loss via death, break-up, accident, serious illness, or other trauma. Spiritual events that may trigger a crisis include existential crisis, paranormal experiences, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, Kundalini energy, religious ecstasy, and meditation or other spiritual practices.

Wikipedia says that, “…before the mid-1970s mainstream psychiatry made no distinction between spiritual or mystical experiences and mental illness.”

In 1993 a new diagnostic category entitled “Religious or Spiritual Problems” was approved and is included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). I hope this addresses the mental-emotional problems that can be associated with spiritual experiences, and is not just another form of categorization of spirituality as a disorder. Wikipedia is vague on the Association’s position, saying, “The inclusion marks increasing professional acceptance of spiritual issues in the assessment of mental health problems.”

That was 22 years ago, and it seems things have not progressed further. Basically, it looks like they really don’t know much and are still researching, but at least with a more open mind. There seems to be a deep rift within psychology though. Wikipedia continues,

“The concept of “spiritual crisis” has mainly sprung from the work of transpersonal psychologists and psychiatrists. The transpersonal is a term used by different schools of philosophy and psychology in order to describe experiences and worldviews that extend beyond the personal level of the psyche, and beyond mundane worldly events. It has been defined as experiences “in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos”. The field of Transpersonal Psychiatry has defined the term as “development beyond conventional, personal or individual levels.” It is related to the terminology of peak experience, altered states of consciousness, and spiritual experiences. Transpersonalists tend to focus less on psychopathology and more unidirectionally toward enlightenment and ideal mental health (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993). However, this emphasis on spirituality’s potentials and health benefits has been criticized. According to James (1902), a spiritual orientation focusing only on positive themes is incomplete, as it fails to address evil and suffering.”

This last statement is nonsense to me; if one has ideal mental health, then suffering is addressed. Any “evil” that needs addressing (criminals, etc.) have a different system addressing them. Spiritual Truth is complete, and not mere mental denial, which is mental illness itself.

We can thank the transpersonal psychologists for the continuing research and deconstruction of spiritual stigma,

“Scholarly attention to spiritual struggle is therefore timely as it can provide greater balance to the empirical literature and increase understanding of everyday spirituality. Another reason for the study of spiritual crisis is that growth often occurs through suffering (e.g., Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998). As such, neglecting problems of suffering might result in neglecting vital sources of spiritual transformation and development (Paloutzian, 2005).” – Wikipedia.

Yes, a spiritual crisis can trigger deeper introspection, detachment, and abandoning false ideas that don’t serve anything but pain and suffering. But they don’t always. Sometimes they just trigger mental illness, if suffering and confusion are not addressed.

The danger with mystical experiences is that they can be used to form beliefs about oneself or the world that are false, painful, or problematic, and which could lead to mental illness that was not there before, and so assistance may be needed.

Transpersonal psychologists support that: “Both the terms “spiritual crisis” and “spiritual emergency” (Grof, 1989) share in the common recognition that: a) non-ordinary experiences and psychological disturbances (e.g., anxiety and panic) often overlap; b) Western medicine may have different, and therefore potentially conflicting, values among their patients about these experiences; and c) people need specialized support in their local area when in crisis.” – Wikipedia.

Don’t be afraid to see the personal help of a spiritual leader or an open-minded psychologist.

The spiritual ecstasy that I experienced was not particularly disruptive, in fact it was a complete dropping away a dropping away of the disruptive 40 years of self-baggage, and resulted in the “ideal mental health” that transpersonal psychologists speak of.

Before then, I had out-out-body experiences, and touched/saw orbs, but these never triggered a crisis, because I did not form new conclusions or beliefs about the world or me, but rather I stopped believing quite so strongly in what I had believed. I was okay with not knowing. If we struggle with not knowing, and needing to know, mind will go crazy, and we may just latch onto anything, in order to ‘know’ something. The upheaval with our identity or reality will settle down when we stop grasping.

Plus, I was not interested in pursuing such phenomena. That was due to knowing that no matter what happens, it is still just a fleeting experience, and there was an understanding that all experiences are temporary, and come and go, so are not Eternal, not Truth, not Reality. At best these experiences loosen our tightly-held ideas about who or what we are, so that something else can be known, because when you are certain about something, nothing else is possible.

Comments 2

  1. I just want to thank you so much.
    You are the voice of compassion, understanding, non judgement and acceptance.
    You are doing ” great” work.
    Changing hearts, minds, beliefs and putting an end to believing that spirituality is just another word for crazy.
    Finally…I know I’m not nuts!

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