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Finding deeper meanings in the language of mental health 02/14/2012

Posted by ALT in Philosophy/Spirituality.
Tags: , , , , ,

[Some of this comes from an earlier post, but it’s worth re-visiting because of the inherent power of words.  They are the way we outline the self-fulfilling prophecies that direct the course of our lives.  Why not chart a course towards sincerity and truth?]

Examining the language of mental health:

A word is like a promise; a failure to deliver a kind of betrayal.  What does the language of mental health promise?


 “waiting upon” or “a service done” (θεραπεία, therapeia).  This original meaning is highly significant, as John Perry explains:

The original meaning of the Greek word therapeia was a “waiting upon” or “a service done” to the gods, with implications of tending, nurturing, caring, and being an attendant; in time the word was applied to medical care.  The original connotation is pertinent to the handling of acute “psychotic” episodes, since the persons undergoing them are in a state of being overwhelmed by images of gods and other mythic elements. Hence a therapist does well to “be an attendant” (therapeutes) upon these mythic images so as to foster their work. “Treatment” strives to stop what is happening, while “therapy” attempts to move with the underlying process and help achieve the creative aim implicit in it.

  John Weir Perry in Trials of the Visionary Mind: Spiritual Emergency and the Renewal Process [emphasis added]


“study of the soul” (ψυχή, psukhē, meaning “breath”, “spirit”, or “soul”); and (-λογία -logia, translated as “study of” or “research”)


“one who studies the soul” (ψυχή, psukhē, meaning “breath”, “spirit”, or “soul”); and (-λογία -logia, translated as “study of” or “research”)


“study of soul suffering” (ψυχή, psukhē, meaning “breath”, “spirit”, or “soul”); (πάθος, pathos, “feeling, suffering”); and (-λογία, -logia; translated as “study of” or “research”).


“soul healer” (ψυχή, psukhē, meaning “breath; spirit; soul”); and (ἰατρεία, iatreia, meaning “healing”)

Quite a disparity between the literal meanings of the words and meanings the mental health profession imbues them with today.  What is the significance of this gap between historical meaning and present-day usage?  Eduardo Duran attempts to answer the question:

The literal definition of our profession [psychology] has deep roots that are enmeshed with spiritual metaphor…

Most of the root metaphors required for the task at hand have existed in the psychological profession for millennia.  A simple linear approach to this would yield the question, “What happened to cause us to lose the essential meaning of our root metaphor?”  Through the process of the so-called enlightenment and the Cartesian splitting of the world, we literally have done just that.  We have been split off from our world-soul.  It follows that if the healer is split from her soul, she will not be able to facilitate the integration of soul in her patients.  Is it possible that our profession also has been infected by the “vampire’s bite” imposed by the Cartesian objectification of the life-world?  Objectification of the life-world into a subject-object relationship helps us to rationalize away the reality of the soul.

(Eduard Duran, Healing the Soul Wound, p 19)

An essential part of the “scientific” training for young psychology/psychiatry/counseling grad students is a total denial of the spiritual (implicitly or explicitly, the message is that a true scientist must, by definition, be an atheist, and that faith is a foolish and primitive superstition).  You’d be hard pressed to find a mainstream mental health professional willing to call himself a “soul healer” or a “student of the soul” in English, though in Greek the claim is proudly printed on their business cards.  Most are not even cognizant that these are the titles they are claiming for themselves. 

What implications does dishonesty in the root metaphor have for the trust that is vital to establishing a therapeutic relationship?

And the most important question of all:

What kind of evil is it for an entire profession that doesn’t believe in the concept of a soul to literally claim to be “soul healers”?

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1. R Tew - 02/14/2012

An interesting distinction: therapy versus treatment. It seems the payers — insurance companies; Medicare and Medicaid — are more inclined to pay for treatment than therapy. I think the fuzziness of therapy makes them hesitant — it’s too easy to defraud, and as well, the time frame for therapy is often longer than treatment. Plus treatment is procedural; therapy is… what, exactly? Doesn’t seem like a procedure, does it?
Yet it might be argued that people often go to their healthcare providers for therapy, sometimes even when they are asking for treatment. So the need is there. If payers are reluctant or simply don’t pay for therapy, how is a patient to get it? And from whom?
As for soul healing, I submit few psychiatrists see themselves as ‘soul healers’ today if they ever did — they treat mental illness. Period. The soul takes care if itself. Psychologists sometimes aspire to ‘soul healing’ but few deserve that label. Many do facilitate ‘enough’ that their patients do find their way back to joy and curiosity and love.

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