Mental Illness or “Spiritual Emergency?”

Conflicts over the beliefs, practices, rituals and experiences related to a person’s religious or spiritual practices sometimes lead them into counseling or, at least, prove significant in treating the issues that brought them there.

A survey of members of the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that one in six of their patients have counseling issues directly involving religion or spirituality. In another study of psychologists, 72 percent indicated that they had at some time addressed clients’ religious or spiritual issues in treatment. Some 29 percent of a sampling that included psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists agreed that religious issues were an important factor in treating all or many of their clients. In short, it’s inevitable that mental health professionals, at some point in their careers, are challenged to address their clients’ crises of religious faith or secular spirituality. 

In some cases, religious and spiritual issues can result in episodes of depression, erupt in storms of anxiety, or even provoke transcendental experiences that can be ecstatic or terrifying and which mimic psychosis. In their book “The Stormy Search for Self,” Christina and Stanislav Grof observe that, “Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not only crises of spiritual opening, but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label…” This is unfortunate because understanding of the spiritual dimension of counseling, combined with skilled and compassionate treatment, can make the difference between the stigma of “mental illness” and facilitating a process that can be healing and spiritual in nature.

Throughout their book, the Grofs offer help in distinguishing between psychosis and spiritual emergency, but admit, “There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation … since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity.”  The Grofs were key in establishing training and sources of referral ( for spiritual crises that are transcendental in nature.