The following is an excerpt from a report published by the Integral Transpersonal Journal on the provision of services aimed at those experiencing spiritual emergency.
Representatives of support networks were asked to reflect on the challenges faced in providing these services, especially in terms of integrating with other organisations and institutions.
The Spiritual Crisis Network is a small, not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers in the UK. Its main objectives are to provide email support, localpeer-led support groups, an online forum and to participate in conferences and research projects connected with Spiritual Crisis.
Formed in 2004, the network chose its name to specifically acknowledge the transpersonal dimension in psychological distress and to identify the organisation as addressing the needs of those in crisis rather than a wider audience of those interested in spiritual development but not in need of support.
Communication with the SCN is made primarily made through the website contact form and enquiries are from people experiencing a wide range of problems that they identify or suspect as having a spiritual cause or aspect to them. They are often struggling to cope with daily life and can be having distressing experiences but are still lucid enough to make contact through the website and enter into a dialogue with a support volunteer. It is a recognised issue that the means of contacting the organisation represents a barrier to access and we do not often receive communications from the most serious cases where the individual is experiencing severe psychological distress and dysfunction. Requests are sometimes received for residential care due to incapacitation and private facilities are available, but publicly funded services are extremely difficult to access in the United Kingdom.
From the feedback we receive, people really value having their difficult experience recognised as having a meaning and as possibly having positive growth potential. By contextualising the experience as something meaningful and to be engaged with and listed to, experiencers find their symptoms cause less psychological distress and more easily managed.
It is common for experiencers to have accessed conventional mental health services, either voluntarily or involuntarily and feel the treatment they received had a negative impact on their outcome. They often report not being listened to and having their symptoms seen as a disease and something to be suppressed and eradicated with powerful drugs.
Medication is often ineffective or counter-productive and other drugs are administered to mitigate unwanted side-effects.
There are few professionals within UK mental health services who use psychological models, which include the spiritual dimension. People who are making meaning and attempting to understand their symptoms using a spiritual frame of reference often feel unable to express themselves in this way when talking to professionals. There is a real or perceived expectation on the part of the experincer that using spiritual or religious language will not be accepted or understood and it will be used against them as part of a diagnosis of personality disorder. Even if practitioners are personally open to contextualising psychological suffering as having a spiritual aspect, they often feel unable to include this in assessment and treatment due to the negative reactions of colleagues and managers.
Some encouraging progress is being made in the National Health Service with the introduction of trials of new approaches such as Open Dialogue, first developed in Finland. This approach is more client-driven and systems based; a treatment plan can include any individuals in the client’s support network including alternative practitioners, holistic health workers, transpersonal therapists etc.
Although some religious institutions have a spiritual frame of reference, people contacting the SCN report that, in their experience, there is little understanding of psychological distress and so they are encouraged to contact mental health services when listening, talking and prayer do not provide relief. There are exceptions of course and an increasing number of individuals in religious groups recognise spiritual crisis as having psychological and spiritual aspects. One of the Spiritual Crisis Networks local peer support groups is run by a pastor and some of the Directors and volunteers identify as having a religious affiliation. However, religion is rarely the primary focus of people contacting the SCN and a specific religious connection or context is never suggested by responders to enquiries unless this is raised by the experiencer. It is common for enquiries to mention Kundalini but this is more connected to physical sensations and constraints on mobility rather than in the context of the Hindu religion or philosophy.
The Spiritual Crisis Network is often contacted by professionals wanting to offer their services and by experiencers wishing to contact a therapist. At present, it is not considered possible to provide details of individual therapists or other professionals due to the perception that this would constitute a recommendation and the SCN would be legally responsible and open to litigation. Enquiries from religious groups are rarely received and this barrier to accessing the service may be because there is no affiliation with any specific religious tradition.
The general lack of communication and cooperation between the traditionally more separate cultural institutions mentioned is experienced by the Spiritual Crisis Network and those contacting the service as detrimental to support provision and healthcare outcomes. By working with academics, clinicians and other professionals and with organisations such as the International Spiritual Emergence Network (ISEN), the SCN continues to encourage a more integrated and less pathologizing approach to psychological distress and to promote the re-appraisal of non-ordinary experiences as having a spiritual context.
Matthew Gorner is a Director of the Spiritual Crisis Network in the UK (www.spiritualcrisisnetwork.uk) and their representative member with the International Spiritual Emergence Network (ISEN). He works as a psychosynthesis counsellor in private practice in London, UK.