How a West African shaman helped my schizophrenic son in a way Western medicine couldn’t

After a wonderful summer of fishing and learning to surf, my son, then a 17-year-old junior at a Boston high school, suddenly told me one afternoon, “I don’t know what’s happening; I can’t find my old self again.” Soon after, Franklin had to be hospitalized. The evaluation described an “increase in psychotic symptoms, including paranoid thoughts, command hallucinations telling him to hurt himself.” These things were “associated with the onset of schizophrenia.”

That was the autumn of 1996. For many years afterward, my son was on and off medication and in and out of hospitals. The drugs reduced his hallucinations and illogical or paranoid thoughts, but their side effects caused him to gain almost 100 pounds and be diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes. Only as Frank entered his early 30s did our shared desperation take us beyond medical treatment, onto a path we could never have anticipated.

A profound ignorance still exists as to the molecular mechanisms behind schizophrenia. Despite theories ranging from genetic inheritance to environmental exposure, scientists cannot specify why 2.2 million Americans suffer from the mental illness. Some have suggested that there is more to this puzzle than Western medicine realizes. In 2012, Canadian evolutionary psychiatrist Joseph Polimeni published a book called “Shamans Among Us,” postulating that schizophrenics are a “modern manifestation of prehistoric tribal shamans.” The South African healer Colin Campbell has been quoted as saying: “People hearing voices for instance or feeling certain things are in touch with other realities, especially the whole mythic realm, that Western society does not have a time or place for.”

Read more