Recently a woman emailed me to interview me about my thoughts about working with herbs to help people who have been treated poorly in the mental health system or who have been experiencing psychosis. The term “survivor” is one that is sometimes used by people who have experienced trauma and ongoing emotional and physical suffering from hospitalization and psychiatric drugs. There is increasing discussion about how extreme states such as hearing voices, having odd perceptions and unusual thought patterns is extremely common and we jump far too quickly towards pathologizing these experiences. Recently, the New York Times published a piece about a sea change that is going on in terms of perceiving psychosis, extreme states and “schizophrenia”. From the article
“TWO months ago, the British Psychological Society released a remarkable document entitled “Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia.” Its authors say that hearing voices and feeling paranoid are common experiences, and are often a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation: “Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.”
The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: “Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without.”
The report adds that antipsychotic medications are sometimes helpful, but that “there is no evidence that it corrects an underlying biological abnormality.” It then warns about the risk of taking these drugs for years.”
The idea that extreme states are something that requires medical intervention is a relatively new one. Generally indigenous and folk cultures throughout the world have employed a wide variety of interventions that include spiritual, shamanic, herbal and dietary techniques for working with people in crisis and spiritual emergence. Within that context, I explored some of the ways that the practice of herbalism intersects with helping people in extreme states.
Q: Feelings of dissociation or disconnection in people going through extreme states, or particularly people who have been on psychiatric drugs, can potentially make it difficult to feel an emotional or spiritual connection with a medicinal herb – therefore hindering the healing process. Do you have any strategies or examples of ways to help encourage this connection?
daphne, rosemary, jasmine, roses and lilacs, or taking thes fragrant flowers into the house as pot pourri. Diffusers and the use of essential oils are also a way of helping bring calm and relaxation. Rose, ylang ylang, lavender and neroli come to mind.
capsule to ingest to gain a desired effect. When I work with people who are recovering from trauma, I often do the simplest thing possible, I have a cup of tea with them. Just the act of siting down and sipping a gentle tea brings connection, warmth, a movement towards increased stillness and trust and away from the noise and the overstimulation of the modern world. I may also go for walks with them. I connect to their experience of the environment. I may point them to the beauty or fragrance of a particular plant. Later I may introduce them to one or two plants, say linden, holy basil, lavender or oatstraw, as a way of creating a direct relationship with single plants.
Getting to know specific herbs as friends becomes a way of recreating trust, opening the door slightly to making a larger connection. Releasing trauma often involves embracing a new vision, a new way of life, creating beauty out of the ashes. Sometimes gardening can help create this new vision- simply digging hands in the earth, creating connection, reaching out to something whole, alive, real, instead of the shut doors, synthetics and florescent lights they have received. The advantage to these ways of healing is that they are simple, cheap and accessible to many.
like to work with tonics such as the asian herbs reishi, ashwaghanda, astragalus, rhodiola, ginseng, american ginseng, mushrooms such as shitaki and chaga, western nutritive herbs such as nettles, raspberry and oat straw in a variety of forms. In general I offer these herbs depending on the “energetics of the person”. I may offer “blood nourishing tonics” to people who appear pale, deficient and worn out. I may offer soothing and cooling alterative and nervine teas such as lemon balm, skullcap and catnip to people who appear stressed out, hot and overexcited. I may offer a massage oil infused with an aromatic plant and recommend self massage as a way of reconnecting in a healthy way to the body. How I mix and match depends on the person’s appearance and the distress process.
club all have marked effects on nourishing these systems and modulating them in a way that is salutary and strengthening.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health