Daily Archives: December 12, 2016

Religious Experiences and Psychotic Symptoms

I was recently having a conversation in the clinic and a patient back in the time when I was working in North London Forensic Service popped up in my mind. This is a big black man with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he also assaulted his ex girlfriend and hence was in the inpatient security ward that I worked at.

From day one I met this man, he was in good order and discipline, never exhibited any of the psychotic symptoms, abusive language or aggressive behaviour of any sort, unlike many other patients there. He was also doing an MBA course through the Open University. So most of the staffs in the team believed that he would make his way out soon, to the community, starting a new life. However, his stay was extended. To our surprise, it was due to a note recorded by a nursing staff (what each patient does every day is recorded on every shift). The nurse got along quite well with the patient, on one occasion, the patient shared with the nurse his experience of seeing white light in his room coming from the sky, and an angelic human coming to him and passing him some positive messages.

The patient surely didn’t know this was recorded in the note. However, this was used against to the patient in the court as evidence of him still experiencing psychotic symptoms (both visual hallucination and delusion) and  was not well enough to leave the ward to the community. The patient came to know the details only after the hearing, from his solicitor. He didn’t get to defend himself on his experience, which he later expressed that this was completely a religious experience, which he found amazing and intriguing, and in no way is related to mental illness. He came from a very religious family.

This was at least 4 to 5 years ago. I still remember it because until today I still cannot be sure whether that decision made by the team was correct. I am not a religious person (few years ago I was turned down as a volunteer in an NGO because I told the interviewer that I have no religion!), I can’t truly understand how a very religious person’s experience with god is like. I did complete the Alpha course in the church when I was doing postgraduate in Brighton. I met a lot of very nice persons, some I still keep in touch today. Sometimes I could be quite shocked by their presentations and behaviour during the services, but I respect that it’s their belief, and I learnt from them although I have not experienced it at all.

If it was a so-called normal person experiencing and sharing their religious or cultural experience, we might or might not believe them, but we wouldn’t think they are having hallucinations. How if a religious person with a history of mental illness experienced and shared such encounter? This is like when I worked there, sometimes we had to do night shifts, and many of those African nurses wouldn’t stay on the ward alone no matter what (we shouldn’t anyway, but there are times of emergency etc). They have had so many encounters of “ghosts” and “spirits” and scary stuff, it’s a hospital afterall, it’s easily linked to deaths (and then “ghosts”). But when this was expressed by a patient, even the African nurses would suspect that he was just having hallucination!

I can’t really have any say about these, I have experienced none, spiritual, religious, or thrilling (to be honest I’m happy and keen to experience them). We were told that we should pay attention to cultural influences and backgrounds before we “judge” someone diagnose a patient. It’s true, I now think it was wrong to hold the big man back solely based on that.