Experiences With the Paranormal: Differentiating Between Spirituality and Psychopathology

A matter of perspective

The issue of spirituality versus psychopathology seems to be a matter of perspective. Overvalued ideas about one’s spiritual belief system can be interpreted by others as symptoms of a personality disorder or psychosis. How do we differentiate between healthy spirituality and psychopathology? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers some guidance, defining delusional beliefs as beliefs “not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.” However, with ever-increasing spiritual sects, it can be difficult for the clinician to know what beliefs might be shared. Additionally, theDSM references the level of impairment, context of behavior or belief and symptoms that may be substance-induced. Thus, isolated experiences that are not part of a broad pattern of disturbance should not be diagnosed.

At times a patient’s spiritual beliefs can interfere (from the clinician’s perspective) with their ability to function in a social, occupational or academic setting. These cases can be challenging to filter through the diagnostic decision tree, especially when it seems as though no one can know for sure the extent of truth to any unusual experience.

For example, I met with a patient who had a strong sense that he was “different” from others; he believed he had lived many past lives and had a special connection with the world that most people he encountered could never understand. He described countless “messages from the universe” directing him in his everyday activities.

From a diagnostic perspective his descriptions bordered on quirky if not impairing. He became quite concerned with physical symptoms, such as feeling like his body was being taken over by an unexplained force, which doctors could not explain. He continually found hidden meanings in TV commercials or friends’ comments that most would consider ordinary experiences. Although he was able to function for the most part independently, he maintained an outlook on the world that made it difficult for him to relate to others and ultimately caused rifts in his relationships.

by HEATHER KRANZ, MED, CRC at Say No To Stigma blog from the Menninger Clinic


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