Mental Illness and the Afterlife
Posted on 16 July 2013, 14:32
A friend, who has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for many years, accepts that there is an afterlife, and worries that he will take his disorder with him into the next world. What am I to say to him?
It is an important question indeed for the perhaps 6% of a population who suffer from a serious mental disorder, and for a much greater number who are less afflicted, or less permanently so. Even so, there is little in the literature of psychic research to help us. Some helpful work has been done, however.
Before thinking about such work, we can remind ourselves of what is commonly said: that in the afterlife we do carry our personalities, our memories, our opinions and beliefs with us, that in the afterlife we tend to be with those of similar spiritual development to ourselves, that in the lowest levels of spiritual development there is much attachment to the earthly realm, and the various kinds of addicts on the earthly plane are often the victims of obsession by such spirits, and that such obsession is the explanation for some mental disorder.
In this physical world, mental disorder is also often the product of disordered families, and disordered, unjust and uncaring societies. We are very much the products of our cultures, our language, our beliefs, our moral standards, our knowledge, and the intricate pattern of human relationships in which we participate. Furthermore, “mental disorder” besides often being the product of society is often defined as such by that same society. What is considered disordered in one society is not so in another.
So, it might not seem easy for me to give my friend a straightforward answer. But if we can agree with modern psychiatry that major psychoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia are as much based on malfunctions of the brain as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, then the question becomes clearer. If readers can accept the reality of the afterlife, then they will accept that the true personality with its memories does not reside in the brain, but is an aspect of another dimension of reality. So whether the brain is disordered, damaged, or destroyed, it will make no difference.
With those thoughts in mind, I could confidently answer my friend’s question, “Will I take my schizophrenia into the next world?” with, “No, you won’t.” That would be the good news I could give to my friend. And as schizophrenia originates in a brain malfunction as is the case with dementia, I feel I can say this on the basis of an experience, reported to me, and which I see no reason to disbelieve:
We had a friend who was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 47 after a long period of increasingly strange behaviour, and by the time he died at the age of 63, he could neither feed himself, nor move around, recognise anyone, or even talk. But his daughter reports that as death approached, her father seemed suddenly to regain his faculties, sat up in bed and gazed with a look of glad recognition at the open door, as if a welcoming spirit stood there.
Such welcoming spirits are often reported in Near Death Experiences: and we may presume (although he didn’t speak) that he was having such an experience.
The phenomenon of Lucidity at Death is referred to in the landmark work Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century – [Edward F Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly et al, 2007, 800 pp.] :
“Benjamin Rush, author of the first American treatise on mental illness (1812), observed that “most of mad people discover a greater or less degree of reason in the last days or hours of their lives” (page 257).… In more recent years, Osis (1961) reported two cases, one of severe schizophrenia and the other of senility (in which) the patients regained normal mentality shortly before death” (page 24). Osis and Haraldsson (1977/1997) reported a case of a meningitis patient who had been “severely disorientated almost to the end,” but who “cleared up, answered questions, smiled, was slightly alienated and just a few minutes before death, came to herself” (page 133). Turetskaya and Romanenki (1975) reported three cases involving remission of symptoms in dying schizophrenic patients. Grosso (2004, pages 42 – 43) describes three dementia cases that had been reported to him, one by a colleague and by a nurse. In all three cases, the patient had not recognised family members for several years, but shortly before death they were all said to have become more coherent and to have recognised family members. Such cases are few in number and not adequately documented, but the persistence of such reports suggests that they may represent a real phenomenon that could potentially be substantiated by further investigation.” [page 411.]
I found an article on Lucidity at Death in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, [28(2), Winter 2009] by a German researcher called Dr Michael Nahm, who agrees about the paucity of the reported experiences, and the lack of adequate documentation, but plainly accepts that the experiences are real. His article is the best that I have found, and if readers wish to read the whole article, they can find it by clicking the link at the end of this blog.
He begins, “Hippocrates, Plutarch, Cicero, Galen, Avicenna, and other scholars of classical times noted that symptoms of mental disorders decrease as death approaches … All of them held the view that the soul remains basically intact when the brain is affected by physical malfunction and disturbance of the mind. Therefore, they believed that during and after death, the soul was freed from material constraints, regaining its full potential.” [p.90]
He gives describes research in this area done by Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert (1780–1860) and several others, and gives a number of case histories. Here are two of them:
“G. W. Surya (1921) recounted an account handed to him by a friend of his. This friend had a brother living in an asylum for many years because of serious mental derangement.
One day, Surya’s friend received a telegram from the director of the asylum saying that his brother wanted to speak to him. He immediately visited his brother and was astonished to find him in a perfectly normal mental state. On leaving again, the director of the asylum decently informed the visitor that his brother’s mental clarity is an almost certain sign of his approaching death. Indeed, the patient died within a short time. Subsequently, an autopsy of the brain was performed, to which Surya’s friend was allowed to attend. It revealed that the brain was entirely suppurated and that this condition must have been present for a long time. Surya asks: ‘‘With what, then, did this brainsick person think intelligibly again during the last days of his life?’’ (p. 14) [Page 95]
“Martensen-Larsen (ca. 1926) reported the case of a farmer’s wife who was seemingly imbecile for eight years. Similar to Marshal’s 1815) previously mentioned case, this account gives an example of a mental illness that, during Terminal Lucidity, the affected person remembered as a ‘‘bad dream’’ and that is reminiscent of the possession by an alien will that quit the scene at the approach of its host’s death.
Usually, the woman just stared in front of her; and – if at all – uttered only detestable swear words. When visited by the doctor or the priest, she displayed an odd virtuosity in successfully spitting on their shoes. One day, she began to converse rationally with her caretaker and apologized from deep within her heart for her bad behaviour. Broken and remorseful, she affirmed she was not able to behave in any other way since she had been forced to act like this. It was her utmost concern whether she would be forgiven for these and other sins. When the priest arrived, he handed her the requested Lord’s Supper. The next morning, she died in peace. (Martensen-Larsen, ca. 1926, p. 128)”
Let this suffice in our discussion of Lucidity at Death for psychotic patients. But the question arises, What about deathbed visions in general? Why should psychotic patients be different in their experiencing? Is there much difference in kind between a deathbed vision and a Near Death Experience? Are not all such events irruptions of experience of the wider world of Spirit?
On pages 408-411 in Irreducible Mind there is a discussion of Deathbed Visions. Readers may well have seen a number of descriptions in Victor Zammit’s or Michael Tymn’s Blogs. The similarity of NDEs to Deathbed Visions is noted. “Deathbed visions our experiences in which dying people seem to converse with people not physically present – usually deceased persons – or to perceive some environment is not physically evident to bystanders. Occasionally, a bystander will also perceive what a day that seems to be seeing (see. E.g., Howarth and Kellehear, 2001; Stevenson, 1995). Like NDE experiencers, dying persons who see people not physically present almost invariably see deceased persons, not living ones. Deathbed visions rarely seem to involve other features prominently associated with NDEs, such as OBEs or tunnels, but these differences may be more apparent than real because an even more fundamental difference between NDEs and deathbed visions is that in the latter the experiencer usually dies shortly after the experience. We therefore rarely get direct accounts from dying persons themselves; reports of what they experienced come rather from people at their bedside who heard what the dying persons said about the experience or who witnessed behaviour suggesting the dying person was experiencing.… In modern times only Osis (1961) and Osis and Haraldsson (1977/1997) have attempted a systematic survey of such experiences. Because these surveys were based entirely on the retrospective recollections of doctors and nurses often from many years earlier, the findings must be considered preliminary only, and they tell us little about the real incidence and character of such experiences… Our own informal enquiries, particularly with hospice doctors and nurses, have strongly suggested that such experiences are in fact quite frequent. Moreover, in a recent study conducted by one of us (EWK) the single most common experience reported was being with the dying person who seem to see or hear deceased loved ones; 218/525 respondents reported such an experience, including 36 nurses or other hospital workers who reported witnessing such experiences, some of them on multiple occasions…. Sufficient evidence is already available, however, to counter any facile blanket dismissal of deathbed visions as mere hallucinations of the dying brain…. Osis and Haraldsson (1977/1997) reported that patients were actually less likely, not more likely, to have deathbed visions if they were on medications or had illnesses affecting consciousness… The dying person apparently sees, and often expresses surprise at seeing, a person who he or she thought was living but who had in fact recently died…”
A lot here, to reassure my friend suffering from schizophrenia. The thought of a life time of mental torment being prolonged into the world of spirit! That would be terrible to contemplate.
Read Michael Nahm’s article: http://thegroundoffaith.net/BLOGS/Nahm.doc
Read this experience:
“I didn’t know dying was such hard work”
Michael Cocks edits the journal, Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
Thank you for researching and writing this article with care and compassion.
Attila, Wed 21 Feb, 13:57
Michael I completely agree with this article !! thanks for writing it Blessings Karen
Karen E Herrick PhD, Wed 17 Jul, 04:06
The American spiritual teacher Adyashanti recounted an anecdote along these lines. His mother worked giving home care, and she was taking care of a woman with severe dementia who no longer could communicate. One day, the woman looked at her and said, with total clarity, “I want you to know that none of this is really affecting me.” Then she went away again, and nothing like this ever happened after that. Adyashanti offered the story without interpretation, as a question without a specific answer.
The farmer’s wife who apologized for the unpleasant behaviors she had been forced to display sounds like a possible case of possession, doesn’t she.
Elene Gusch, Wed 17 Jul, 03:27
You are right surely to reassure your friend that in the transformational process beyond this life where the will of God that all people should be totally free is unhindered by the frailties of our humanity without removing our being from us.
Those who subscribe to realised eschatology for whom there is only oblivion beyond death need to recognise that the gift of righteousness is just that. We are believers in eternal life not because we think we have ‘attained’ a particular divinely acceptable state nor that we have resolved our physical, mental, spiritual or moral issues but because we trust in a perfect Saviour.
Who among us is a whole person?
To me the joy of eternity is the gift of wholeness in all its totality and wonder freeing us all for the adventures ahead.
John Marcon, Wed 17 Jul, 02:59
An interesting article, and deathbed lucidity especially so. The article is based on physical plus historic reference rationale, and is therefore lengthy. Coming from the other direction ... spiritual data plus seance group rationale, the situation and understanding become much simpler. Mind belongs to spirit and is only lightly linked to the physical brain (and this fact is still questioned by some scientists!). Only the brain and the rest of the physical body can have the affliction of disease. Proof? Our group has assisted / counselled many ‘rescues’ ... of those, who having died physical death, cannot complete their transition to spirit on account of disbelief , ignorance or failure to think about it. They need a little help ... either from those in spirit or those in spirit plus a developed seance group. On these occasions, it is plain for all present in the group to see that the ongoing spirit is intact. We have later spoken with those who have been so assisted and they have described how they, as Earthly cripples, no longer need crutches; and how others with various afflictions, no longer have them. Our website: http://www.salumetandfriends.org has a ‘Rescue Work’ page. Please feel free to visit.
George E Moss, Wed 17 Jul, 00:07
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