Noel Hunter Psychosis Therapy

Although considered controversial and reactively responded to with guffaws and dismissal, the idea of psychosis as potentially healing is not new. Since at least the time of Carl Jung, and perhaps more famously with R.D. Laing, clinicians and individuals with lived experience alike have been discussing the transformative power of psychosis.

What is new is that there appears to be an ever-increasing pool of evidence to support these assertions. So where is all this research? It’s actually coming from the very people who would cringe at the very idea of psychosis being described as adaptive or healing. It is being splashed across headlines and excitedly being promoted by pharmacologists, psychiatrists, and biological researchers as the latest great discovery: psychedelics as medicine.

Now, these researchers would argue vehemently that ‘mental illness’ and ‘schizophrenia’ are decidedly NOT the same things as taking a controlled substance under supervision, for a limited period of time, and for otherwise ‘healthy’ individuals. While the surface particulars are obviously true, the underlying presumption that naturally-occurring psychosis in response to life-events is ‘sick’, while synthetically-produced psychosis is ‘medicine’ may not be. In fact, these experiences may not be so different at all.

History of using psychedelics and marijuana as spiritual substances

Hershey religious ritual Noel Hunter

Photo by Peter hershey

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a religion.” – Robert M. Pirsig in Lila (1991)

From the beginning of time, it appears as though humans have utilized imagination and the existence of supernatural beings to explain phenomena they otherwise could not. The need to explain chaos in the world led to many fanciful ideologies that are now looked upon as ‘myths’. Such systems of belief serve to quell the unbearable anxiety associated with ambiguity, awareness of death, fear, and lack of meaning.

Several reports describe Siberian tribes, witch doctors and shamans using amanita muscaria, an hallucinogenic mushroom, in order to talk to gods. In Hinduism, considered to be one of the earliest religions, one way to be closer to the gods and find empowerment was through the use of a powerful hallucinogen, Soma.

In fact, many of the beliefs and teachings within the Hindu religion are thought to have grown directly from experiences had while under the influence of drink from this plant considered to be of the gods. In addition to Soma, Cannabis is said to have been given to humans by the god Shiva, who rested in its shadow.

Rastafarianism, while explicitly rejecting alcohol due to its inebriating effects, uses marijuana as a holy herb allowing individuals to expand their consciousness and experience freedom from oppression. It is used to increase feelings of connection to others and allow for religious vision. Similarly, Native Americans frequently used this ‘sacred herb’ in rituals of peace and prayer.

The chemically-induced experience of expanded consciousness, euphoria, hallucinations, contact with other-worldly beings, strange belief systems, ritualistic behaviors, and religious exceptionalism are all part of these spiritual traditions. Those who were able to have these experiences naturally, as in the case with Shamanism for instance, have long been considered to be potential leaders with the potential for great insight and healing power.

Modern research appears to support what humans have instinctually known since the beginning of time.

Psychedelics research

Psychedelics are substances that lead to profound alterations in perception, mood, and thought processes. Yet, it has now become accepted among many mainstream mental health professionals that psychedelic use can, for some people, result in permanent mental health benefits. For instance, research has demonstrated that psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin can result in decreased anxiety in individuals with a life-threatening disease such as cancer. Further, psychedelics have also been shown to decrease suicidal thinking and attempts.

In fact, journals are highlighting the potential these substances have in treating a myriad of human suffering, including addiction and trauma. Individuals with lived experience have described how this alteration in consciousness resulted in healing long-term battles with the horrors of the world. The altered states may enhance the recall and ability to process traumatic memories while increasing insight by decreasing inhibition and psychological defenses.

Additionally, researchers have suggested that the psychedelic experience results in lasting improvements in a sense of inner peace, increased humor and playfulness, enhanced compassion and regard for others, decreased anger, and enduring personality change. Further, and in line with the history of psychedelic usage throughout time, these substances appear to boost spirituality.

In fact, participants in these studies have described the experience as the “most spiritually significant experience of their lives”. Interestingly, the experience itself is described as “mystical” and opening “a door to the mind“. The greater the dose, the more profound the transformation.

In one study conducted at John Hopkins, the mystical aspect of the experience was determined to be vital to lasting change. Griffiths, the lead author of this study, described “mysticism” as: “a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”

In addition to the mystical aspects of the experience, it is also important to note that these psychedelic trips were not necessarily pleasant! Many participants in these studies reported going through periods of extensive fear and anxiety. Some studies have found confusion and ‘thought disorder’ to be the most common effects. “Delusional paranoid thinking” has also been frequently noted.

Despite the fact that anxiety, fear, and thought distortions were the most extreme at the highest doses, the greatest healing effects and transformative results were gained at those very same dosages.

And, researchers don’t think that these are inherently just passing side-effects; researchers acknowledge that without a supportive environment conducive to healing, this anxiety and fear could potentially become harmful and ongoing. In fact, the environment, relationships, and expectations and beliefs regarding the mystical happenings are critical elements determining positive healing experiences. In other words, it is not one’s genes or the experience itself that determines outcomes but the subjective interpretation based on a supportive environment with helpful others.

The transformative power of psychosis

So what about a naturally-occurring psychedelic trip? Is it really so different?

Much in the same way of the spiritual traditions, individuals, too, seek explanatory belief systems in response to terror and fear. Religious themes and one’s relationship with God is quite common in the belief systems of those labelled ‘schizophrenic’.

However, one could consider narratives of supernatural beings and other-worldly experiences as symbolic of an unbearable reality. The experience of an altered state may be the body’s natural attempt to process and heal from that reality while undergoing drastic change.

Qualitative research and analyses of first-person accounts have demonstrated how, for some, psychosis is described as a conduit for spiritual growth and transformation. The process itself, often is one wherein the battle between good versus evil plays out. This mystical and spiritual theme is one that underlies a profound existential dilemma that, if worked through and supported, can result in spiritual enhancement.

Indeed, many have written about how recovery from psychosis can result in a greater connection with others, increased hopefulness, insight, improved psychological functioning and inner peace, and a sense of empowerment. It may also result in greater innovation and joy, as described by John Nash in a biographical essay. More specifically, the mystical aspects of their experience have been particularly important in helping individuals to change their lives for the better.

In fact, the only differences between what is more widely considered to be a ‘mystical experience’ versus ‘schizophrenia’ appears to be visual versus auditory extra-sensory perceptions and the precipitants (drug-taking versus life experience).

Similar to the psychedelic trip, environment, supportive relationships, and interpretation of experience appear key to whether the experience is transformative or destructive. For instance, one study’s findings suggest that mindfulness and encouragement of spiritual exploration may decrease overall distress and promote growth. First-person stories of how interpretation of ‘psychosis‘ or ‘mania‘ as a spiritual emergency have demonstrated the healing power of this subjective perspective and the promotion of recovery it may be associated with.

Alternatively, first-person accounts have also described the destructive nature of suppression and coercion versus that of a supportive and empowering relationship. Almost half a century ago, a Jungian psychiatrist name John Weir Perry wrote about how the traditional approach to working with these experiences is one that is based on silencing, disapproval, pathologizing, rejection, and oppression. He described this standard reaction as leading to the frustration of practitioners and the increased sense of isolation and madness for the very people they claim to help.

If, like with synthetic psychosis, the subjective interpretation of experience and the supportive nature of relationship are keys to determining outcome, does it not seem likely that this is also the case with natural psychosis?

A new paradigm for psychosis

Considering the now irrefutable link between developmental trauma and psychosis, the idea that psychotic phenomena develop as an adaptation and/or as a process of attempting to deal with unbearable experiences must be considered more widely.

While researchers continue to develop new models of experimentally understanding psychosis, often involving animals and manipulation of neurons and/or neurochemicals, it may behoove us all to consider that we already have experimental evidence at hand. Clinicians may benefit from adapting methods used in these studies to real-world interventions with individuals experiencing naturally-occurring psychosis.

While, again, many may repeat the oft-touted rhetoric that chemically-induced and naturally-occurring psychoses are completely different, what if the hypothesis that they are not is considered?

Imagine what might happen to the ‘healthy’ participants undergoing these chemically-induced altered states if their doctors were to tell them “you are insane”, “your experience is not real”, “your experience is not spiritual, it is a disease”, or if they were to suddenly be physically removed from their supportive and peaceful environment, stuck with a needle in their bum, and locked in a strange room. What if half-way through their trip they were given drugs that numb the mind and make it difficult to think or move clearly? What might their outcomes look like then?

On the flip-side, what if we took individuals who are experiencing emotional crises called ‘psychosis’ and offered them safe spaces of respite? Loren Mosher once asked this same question and had phenomenal outcomes as a result. What if, as in the psychedelic experiments, the therapist was more of a guide and support, allowing the person to go through their experience and helping them to make meaning of it in the process? What if interventions were based on respect for the psychotic experience and all it represents and focused on ensuring that the person feels safe, supported, heard, and understood? What if people who had gone through the experience themselves were to teach others how to use this gift instead of being ridiculed as not educated enough?

What if???

9 replies
  1. Mb Visco
    Mb Visco says:

    So how can we do this. I have a family member who has been “healing herself” as there is nothing wrong with her etc.. she is beyond meds for 18 months but very paranoid, pizza gate, anti gov, anti vaccine, anti husband ( caretaker /most ardent supporter), anti family and friends but texts us 40–100 times per day. Verbally abusive. Smokes weed/ believe herself a healer but won’t heal self as she is no crazier than the rest of us. We want her back. How do we get her some psychedelic therapy?!

    Reply
    • Noel Hunter, Psy.D.
      Noel Hunter, Psy.D. says:

      Dear Mb Visco- I’m genuinely sorry to hear of your current struggle. It can be so difficult for family members to know what to do or where to turn when someone is in crisis. Psychiatry’s current approach is helpful to few and leaves too many, including those with the experience at hand, worse off and desperate. There needs to be a major paradigm shift and places for people like your family member to go where their experience can be understood and worked through without further distancing them and increasing their fear and sense of marginalization. Sadly, few places like this exist. If you are actually asking for potential referrals, feel free to email me and I will see if I can locate someone in your area that might be of assistance. Best of luck to you…Noel

      Reply
        • Noel Hunter, Psy.D.
          Noel Hunter, Psy.D. says:

          Thanks, Don – To be clear, I am not advocating for or against the use of drugs of any sort regardless of a person’s experience. I am arguing that if reports keep saying that psychedelics can, for some, be healing, then why is there no consideration that psychosis can also be healing for some. Anyway, nice to see you here and hopefully see you in August!

          Reply
  2. Don Karp
    Don Karp says:

    Thanks, Noel, for the fascinating article.

    Here is an article in madinamerica.com by Will Hunter on the use of marijuana as both cause and cure for psychosis: http://snip.ly/0d156

    From my personal experience, having experienced both sides- I would make sure that a warning was incorporated into the title of the article or at least in a subheading.

    Reply
  3. Jillri George
    Jillri George says:

    My voices opened up 5 years ago in what I call voice soup. They came in with angelic choirs, african chant songs and old songs from the rail road era. The beginning was indescribable. Terrifying growls, being slapped awake from sleep. Being ridiculed hated. My senses became ultra aware of patterns and broken communications. They now work with me and I don’t know what I would do without them. They call what happened to me, Psychosis brought on by trauma. They explain further by saying I was living a life I didn’t want to live, like it conflicted with my purposeful path. The more positive I became, the more advanced. In this time I have separated from my husband of 30 years, moved my teen girls to Texas to live with my sister and mom. I was now in a position to care for my mom until she passed, my sister and I are best friends, my daughters have become healthy happy and safe from abuse. Things began to change so quickly when I began to really listen and set goals for self and life! I’ve had visions and waking dreams. That have brought me further information. Oh, I’m not to ask them questions but to allow information to come as needed. I would love to be better able to speak with others about this shared experience. The psychiatric care I receive has enabled me to medicate the overwhelming amount of info that can all come thru at once. Most psychiatrist have referred to my voices as hallucinations. Most recently my new Doc ask if it may be paranormal. How this is approached by the medical field definitely needs to change. I feel that more and more people will be experiencing this shared consciousness kind of thing and that is what I stress to every doctor I see.

    Reply
    • Noel Hunter, Psy.D.
      Noel Hunter, Psy.D. says:

      Thank you, Jilri George, for sharing your story and your journey. I wonder if you have looked into the Hearing Voices Network? We have a conference coming up in Boston in August where you might find many like-minded people with some similar experiences to talk to and explore these shared experiences. In any case, I’m happy to hear that you’ve formed a better relationship with yourself and your experiences. All the best on your continued path- Noel

      Reply
  4. Daniel S Lennox
    Daniel S Lennox says:

    Hi all, I just want to askl if someone ever tried using shrooms or truffles for medical purposes? I was reading some articles about this magic truffles and shrooms before engaging my self for the first time. Like this one from:https://www.trufflemagic.com/blog/how-magic-truffles-chemically-alter-the-brain/ .They say that it has a very potent effect on the brain and hallucination. Unlike marijuana does it have any medical use? In one article that I’ve read magic truffles or shrooms are use on reducing the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. It can also help people to quit smoking and alcohol addiction. Some studies also suggest the property of magic shrooms/truffles can be useful for cancer patients. I would really want to hear other insights regarding this new possible alternative meds. Thanks

    Reply
  5. Pamela Wagner
    Pamela Wagner says:

    Hi Noel, i read this and several of your other articles with great interest. Also your piece at Truth-out was magnificent…

    I had been a decades-long captive of the psychiatric hospital system (esp in Connecticut) literally tortured — and i think being assaulted by a squad of guards, brutally stripped naked, four-pointed, then strangled and injected despite no resistance on my part, for “disturbing the milieu” counts as torture– by their methods of coercion and control until 2014 when i escaped to Vermont, where again i suffered more torture until finally — after discharged from the state hospital unit in 2016 — i decided to opt out of all contact with medical personnel in the state completely. Although i do skype with a “friendly” shrink in another state in order to fill scripts for medications i have not yet been able to wean myself off completely (after 40 years on “antipsychotics” however useless they are it is difficult to get off them) i have had no psychiatric help since that time. And no hospitalizations either….i now consider my decades long diagnosis of schizophrenia to have been bogus and hugely detrimental to my life, even if it seemed and even felt right to me in my twenties, being brainwashed into believing that hearing voices and having “hallucinations” later on of all my senses made me certifiably crazy. It is absolutely impossible, i believe, not to become delusional, as it were, when you are hearing things and seeing and tasting and smelling and even experiencing tactile sensations that others claim are “not real” and for which there appears to be no “real explanation”! Of course when these others are your nurses and doctors, and are forcibly medicating you, such delusions take the form of “you are poisoning me” and such! Why wouldnt they?

    In any event, i assume that when you write here of the August event, you mean the World Congress of Voice Hearers? I will be presenting there, doing a slide show of my art and poetry reading about my experiences in CT hospitals, on the 17th between 3-4pm. Would love to see you and talk with you at some point if you are not completely swamped with others!

    Yours,

    Pamela Spiro Wagner

    Reply

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