Uncovering stories of healing

U of L health sciences professors Dr. Gary Nixon and Dr. Brad Hagen are aware of the potential stigma and suffering associated with psychosis. Both having worked in the field of mental health (Nixon as a psychologist and Hagen as both a registered nurse and a provisional psychologist), they've seen firsthand how people with psychosis struggle with not only with their conditions, but also with feelings of isolation and the side-effects of the psychotropic drugs they're often prescribed.

"People with psychosis very seldom say they receive messages of hope through the mental health system," says

(l-r) Dr. Brad Hagen, research assistant Krystal Kingston and Dr. Gary Nixon delve deeper into psychotic episodes and the sometimes positive transformations that can result.
Nixon. "They may be told that this is the way they'll be for the rest of their lives, and there's not much that can be done about it other than to take medication. After diagnosis people can lower their expectations."

During a two-year research project involving people with psychosis, however, Nixon and Hagen spoke with participants who claimed that their psychotic episodes, although troubling at the time, subsequently proved to be transformative in nature, often leading to significant spiritual or psychological growth.

"The entire concept of psychosis is always seen as very negative" says Hagen. "We're not trying to downplay how disturbing and crippling psychosis can be for many individuals, but our research suggests that there may be a significant number of people who describe their psychosis as a kind of spiritual or psychological awakening. We wanted to get those stories out there."

Nixon and Hagen, together with research assistant Krystal Kingston (BSc '07), a second-year master of education student, interviewed 30 people in Western Canada who felt their psychosis had resulted in a kind of personal growth or transformation. One important finding of the study is that this group of people – or "transformers," as the researchers have called them – found alternative ways to deal with their delusions and/or hallucinations, after finding that traditional treatments were not helpful.

Transformers reported success in managing their symptoms in a variety of ways, most often associated with meditation or other forms of spiritual practice. Successful transformers felt their journey through psychosis, although initially difficult, was eventually a path to greater inner peace and calm.

"We're certainly not saying that this approach works for everyone, but our research suggests that for some individuals, it does," Hagen says.

Hagen and Nixon are in the final stages of their study, and are presently writing several manuscripts describing their findings.