Bipolar disorder and religious experiences
When you wake up and realise you’re Jesus
Suddenly, you’re overwhelmed by an overpowering feeling of unity. You and everything around are one; energy flows through everything you see and touch. Or you hear a clear voice, accompanied by a bright white light, telling you that you’re the chosen one.
These are the kinds of intense experiences the people in Eva Ouwehand’s research have. They are experiences that feel like they’re extremely important and can’t just be dismissed as a symptom of bipolar disorder – at least not by these people themselves.
‘I was curious to find out how people viewed these experiences when they’ve recovered’, says Ouwehand, who is defending her thesis on Thursday. ‘And whether these experiences have a lasting influence on their life.’
For her, these are personal questions. Her father used to have psychotic episodes. ‘He’d read a lot of esoteric books when he was having an episode. My mother eventually threw the books away’, she says. ‘His faith helped him a lot, but sometimes he focused on it too much.’ She doesn’t suffer from psychoses herself, but she has had ‘experiences of oneness’ during Buddhist meditation sessions. Faith is also important to her: she is a spiritual counsellor and a minister at the Dutch Protestant Church.
In her research, she focused on people with bipolar disorder, who used to be called manic depressives. Or, simply put, people who experience periods in which they’re extremely joyful, alternated with periods of extreme depression. They can suffer from psychoses in both moods.
Ouwehand first interviewed thirty-five patients from public health institutes Altrecht and Eleos, among others. She then put together a questionnaire and had almost two hundred patients from the Bipolar ward at Altrecht answer it. The central question she asked was about the impact the experience had on their lives.
Afterwards, people said the Jesus experience was the least spiritual one
Most people in her research experienced a ‘horizontal transcendence’, says Ouwehand. That’s not necessarily anything to do with any kind of supernatural reality, but more with something universal: a feeling of unity in life, or the feeling that nothing is a coincidence. Like in the film The Matrix, where Neo suddenly realised his life wasn’t real, but made up of something else; that everything had meaning and was connected.
The Jesus experience, or something equally supernatural, was much less common. Remarkably, ‘that was also the kind of experience people called the least spiritual’, says Ouwehand.
People who had had manic episodes more often had an easier time putting their religious experience into context. There was a better balance between that experience and the rest of their life. Ouwehand: ‘Some people also said they used to focus on it too intently before.’ Like her father and his esoteric books. ‘You could also go tend your garden.’
Before people are able to interpret experiences like these, they go through this whole process. ‘They people interpret their experience depends on their state of mind. If they’re stable, it’s different than when they’re manic or depressed.’
They can experience extreme mood swings, from good to bad and back again. ‘Seeing yourself as part of the universe is great and all, but if your own ‘self’ disappears because all you are is energy or part of a process, that can also be very frightening.’
A guy who saw a devil viewed that as an incentive to change his ways
Instead of Jesus, a guy from the Antilles saw a devil. ‘That was towards the end of a manic episode’, says Ouwehand. He turned it into a positive experience. ‘He saw it as an incentive to change his ways.’
A woman who’d been raised orthodox protestant had also seen the devil. ‘She completely changed in her faith. She said that when she was psychotic, she thought it was real, but now she knows that the devil was made up by people.’
People struggle with what their experiences mean, says Ouwehand. ‘How they were raised, how they grew in their spirituality, and how they talk to other people about it; it all has impact.’
What does she think? Are these delusions? Or is there some kind of spiritual truth that she can see?
‘Whether or not these experiences are true is a philosophical question. I do have a framework that I base my interpretations on, but I don’t force that on anyone.’
According to her, that’s not the point, anyway. What’s important is how these people interpret their experience. Whether it’s something that has lasting meaning for them, how they integrate it into their life’s story, or whether they can still manage their own lives after an experience like that. ‘The process of interpretation is more important than the experience itself. It’s all linked. Medical and personal interpretive models vary per person and per episode. Talking about that can help with recovery.’
Whether it’s true or not is a philosophical question
That’s where her profession comes into play: spiritual counsellor. Her research showed that during treatment, people need philosophy and spirituality in their treatment. Half of the patients she questioned said that was important to them.
‘There’s a bias there, of course’, Ouwehand says, because the people who’ve had these spiritual experiences are more likely to fill out a questionnaire and need counselling. And yet: only six percent of the interviewees from the first study had talked to a spiritual counsellor.
There are things we can learn from this, says Ouwehand. ‘Spiritual counsellors should be more integrated into the treatment programme. They shouldn’t just be called when someone asks for them or if the therapist suggests it. Right now, our involvement is coincidental. They should make it a standard question: whether patients think it’s an important subject in their treatment.’
She hastens to add that she doesn’t think spiritual counsellors should be a standard part of treatment. ‘We’d have to have ten times more of us’, she says, laughing. She does feel her occupation’s expertise could be put to better use. On a team level, or by referring people more often: ‘but social workers should also help people who had a religious experience in their search. It’s not something that should just be ignored during treatment.’
Eva Ouwehand is defending her thesis on Thursday, January 30, at 11 o’clock at the Academy building. Afterwards, at 2 o’clock, there’s a symposium on religious and spiritual experiences in mental healthcare at the Doopsgezinde kerk.
Translation by Sarah van Steenderen