The (R)Evolution In Mental Healthcare — Brazilian Style


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A group of healthcare providers and film crew on location in Brazil.

Currently an epidemic of mental health disorders plagues the U.S. One in five Americans is estimated to be taking one or more prescribed psychiatric medications, despite their many advertised side effects. However, optimizing wellbeing without psych meds is possible, something many Brazilians have been doing for more than 100 years.

My Time In Brazil

From 2001-2012 I spent 6 months of every year in Brazil exploring Brazilian Spiritism, an offshoot of Spiritualism that specializes in healing. During that time I served as a guide bringing groups to John of God's spiritual healing hospital in Abadiania, Brazil.

While John of God — whom the indigenous people of Brazil consider a gifted shaman — is a healing phenomenon unto himself, more conventional Spiritists operate over 12,000 community centers and fifty psychiatric hospitals in Brazil. These hospitals combine conventional psychiatry, including the cautious use of psych meds, psychotherapy, art therapy, etc., with various paths of spiritual healing, such as energy work to clear subtle bodies, compassionate fellowship with peer counselors, spiritual healing, blessed water, the assistance of medical intuitives and mediums for diagnostics and treatment.

A person who enters a Spiritist psychiatric hospital for care first meets with an MD for a physical check up, then a social worker to consider psychological stress (loss of a job, death in the family, marital problems, addiction, etc). An authorization to receive Spiritist treatment must be signed in order to receive it. After being admitted, the person is guided to a ward in the secure compound that is specific to their problem, such as addiction or schizophrenia.  

Euripedes Spiritist psychiatric hospital in Goiania is housed on a former farm. Patients enjoy 100-year-old mango and other trees with fruit, free for the picking, a large permaculture garden where patients can work if they wish, a pond with ducks to feed — even some friendly dogs and a large pet turtle roam freely. Cows graze in a nearby field and amble, mooing, into the compound barns to be milked twice a day. The rhythms of nature are ever present, the food is wholesome, companionship and support of other patients and peer support workers are close by, nurses are there as needed. I could imagine wanting to stay at this hospital on vacation!  

A typical residential stay is 28 days, but some patients stay longer, depending on the care needed. Most Spiritist hospitals also provide out-patient services for those who don’t need residential care. Over the years, many generous Brazilians who work in these hospitals have taught me about the spiritual side of maintaining wellness and healing from emotional disturbances.

Our Current System

Let’s take the pulse of mental health care in the U.S. One of the most influential recent books is Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker (2010, Crown), which won the Investigative Reporters and Editors highest award for investigative journalism in 2011.

The take-home: We have put too much faith in psychiatric drugs for treatment of emotional disturbance — and they have not delivered what we hoped they would in the last 50 years. In fact we have more mental illness now and more people on disability for mental illnesses than ever before. Whitaker suggests that psychiatric meds themselves may contribute to the rise of mental illness diagnosis and medication.  

Whitaker’s disclosures were emphasized again at a conference in Hanover, NH, — “Preventing Over-diagnosis and Over-medication” — sponsored by a group from Dartmouth Medical School. Hundreds of MDs from Europe and the U.S. discussed how to reverse the increase in people diagnosed with mental illness. Targeted were the problems we now face with big pharmaceutical companies who push psychiatric medications for bottom-line profits at the expense of patient well-being, and exert influence on medical schools to exclusively teach a bio-medical approach to treat mental disorders.

The good news is there is a quiet revolution going on that is leading to an evolution in our mental healthcare. The data clearly indicates that long term use of psych meds leads to problems in thinking, breakdown of physical systems and shortened life span. Short term use can be very beneficial for some, as long as professional monitoring is included to reduce potential harm.

As MDs absorb the newest research, some doctors and healthcare providers choose to stick with what they previously learned in school and keep treating primarily with medication, despite the negative data. On the other end of the spectrum, pioneering MDs of every age are turning to alternatives and creating a more integrative approach, trying to limit powerful psychiatric medications to short term use and applying other effective alternatives when they are beneficial.

Returning To What Works And Adding New Components

In some ways the newest scientific research returns us to what has been used in the past to help people recover. New research on the impact of ancient spiritual practices along with new technologies underscores the endless possibilities for healing potential just waiting to be tapped naturally in every aspect of our daily lives.

  • Peer support/compassionate caring relationships, which allow the troubled person to be listened to with attention and care
  • Skill building to learn how to maintain open, authentic dialogue with family and friends, such as group therapy and open dialogue
  • Encouragement to gain more self-awareness and self-responsibility through cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology
  • Volunteer work and helping others in need to increase one’s own sense of wellbeing through assisting others
  • A secure, caring environment for someone who is a danger to themselves or others
  • Adequate nutrition, micro-nutrients and effective herbs prescribed via specific lab tests
  • Adequate rest
  • Appropriate exercise
  • Effective therapies that ease the effects of past trauma, for example, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also called tapping
  • Massage, Reiki and other forms of hands-on bodywork, which are useful for helping people relax and de-stress or clear emotional baggage
  • Creative expression such as visual arts, music, theater, crafts
  • Gardening, hiking, spending time in nature
  • Biofeedback
  • Neurofeedback
  • Electro-magnetic technologies, such as trans-cranial electro-stimulation
  • Mindfulness practices, meditation, prayer, and other centering methods such as hatha yoga and tai chi
  • The use of a shaman or healer from one’s own culture to augment and enhance existing treatments
  • The comfort and inspiration of participation in an ongoing spiritual community
  • Alignment with what gives you meaning and purpose

A Closer Look At The Impact Of Spiritual Growth On Mental Health

You don’t have to be religious to find healing, but you do need to align with what brings meaning and purpose to you individually. Many people find that meditation and prayer assist in finding meaning and purpose, which are universal practices found in nearly every culture to induce peace and reduce anxiety and depression. An ongoing community that is personally meaningful might involve making music or art together with others, being in nature, joining a church or a myriad of other interests that bring people into close, authentic connection, which contributes to feelings of wellbeing.

Brazilian Spiritism offers a way of life that supports spiritual growth in the context of a healthy, balanced lifestyle based on the golden rule. Spiritist mediums, medical intuitives and healers offer their services for free through community centers and psychiatric hospitals to individuals of any age, culture and philosophy. (The hospitals charge for hospital services such as nursing, professional assessments and residential care, but at rates much lower than the U.S.)

Entrance to a clinic in Goiania that specializes in helping people with addictions.Mediums and medical intuitives are sensitive people gifted with heightened psychic abilities, who have been trained over many years at Spiritist centers to perceive the root cause of mental disturbances in those who are suffering. They generally work in groups to perform spiritual healing supervised by their more experiences teachers. Spiritists have a system of mentoring the gifts of sensitives so they can harness their abilities to lead balanced lives and assist others.

Energy healing, blessed water to enhance healing, study groups, mediumistic meetings, lectures, compassionate fellowship, and training as an energy healer, medical intuitive or medium are services that are also available at community centers. Some centers offer pre-natal care, consultation with MDs and homeopaths, herbal and vitamin/mineral supplements, a soup kitchen and food boxes and clothing for those who are financially challenged. There are many opportunities for volunteer work to benefit others.

Can you imagine what it might be like to receive this kind of care? I was profoundly touched by the compassion and sensitivity in the community centers and hospitals for those suffering with mental illness. My local hospital in Vermont uses Reiki in palliative care; why not bring it into mental health care as well? Medical intuitives would be very beneficial to help with diagnosis and treatment.

In Brazil, Spiritist community care has been available for more than 120 years. It has both stood the test of time and continues to grow in popularity. They call their approach “integrative” because it brings spirituality into mental healthcare, while recognizing the effective role bio-chemistry can play when monitored carefully. In the U.S., the Spiritual Emergence Network and Spiritual Competency Resource Center recognize a category of experience called “spiritual emergency,” which assists individuals experiencing a psycho-spiritual crisis, similar to the Brazilian mental health focus.

An evolution in mental healthcare is taking place where we have become aware of the dangers in leaning too heavily on psychiatric medications. Spiritist centers and hospitals in Brazil offer one model that can facilitate our re-evalution and exploration of options.

Emma Bragdon has a PhD in transpersonal psychology, is the author of seven books, and the founder and director of Integrative Mental Health for You (IMHU.org), a not-for-profit organization delivering online classes to the public to optimize mental health. Emma takes groups of healthcare providers to an annual weeklong tour in Brazil to learn more about Spiritist healing. Visit EmmaBragdon.com.

See also:
Musings: Your Body Is Alive And Well
Zoloft Has Lawyers Looking At The Dark Side Of Antidepressants

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