Commentary on "Spiritual Experience and Psychopathology"
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Commentary on “Spiritual Experience and Psychopathology”

Jackson and Fulford have written an impor-tant paper which addresses an area of increasing interest in the United States—the relationship between religious/spiritual experiences and psychopathology. Using primarily the Present State Examination as the diagnostic framework, the authors describe in rich clinical detail three patients where certain phenomena lead to a possible diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, the patients’ outcomes were uniformly positive—how can this be? The authors argue persuasively for the importance of a contextual assessment “in which psychotic phenomena themselves are embedded in the values and beliefs of the person concerned.” In this commentary, we will first present innovations in the DSM-IV relevant to cultural and religious/spiritual issues, which complement the authors’ conclusions, and then comment upon the paper from this perspective.

In the DSM-IV Introduction (1994), a section entitled “Ethnic and Cultural Considerations” provides a rationale for innovations in DSM-IV that better enables its use with culturally diverse individuals: “A clinician who is unfamiliar with the nuances of an individual’s cultural frame of references may incorrectly judge as psychopathology those normal variations in behavior, belief, or experience that are particular to the individual’s culture. For example, certain religious practices or beliefs (e.g., hearing or seeing a deceased relative during bereavement) may be misdiagnosed as manifestations of a Psychotic Disorder” (xxiv). In the introduction, three types of information are cited: 1) sections entitled “Age, Gender and Cultural Considerations” in the text of ninety diagnostic categories discuss clinical variations due to these factors; 2) an Outline for Cultural Formulation designed to assist the clinician in systematically evaluating and reporting the impact of the individual’s cultural context; and 3) a Glossary of Culture-Bound Syndromes. These innovations, based on recommendations of the NIMH Workgroup on Culture, Diagnosis and Care to the Task Force on DSM-IV, are described in extensive detail in an important recent book (Mezzich, Kleinman, Fabrega, and Parron 1996).

As an example of the importance of the Age, Gender, and Cultural Consideration section relevant to religious and spiritual experiences, consider the section in the text describing schizophrenia, where the following appears: “Clinicians assessing the symptoms of Schizophrenia in socioeconomic or cultural situations that are different from their own must take cultural differences into account. Ideas that may appear to be delusional in one culture (e.g., sorcery and witchcraft) may be commonly held in another. In some cultures, visual or auditory hallucinations with a [End Page 75] religious content may be a normal part of religious experience (e.g., seeing the Virgin Mary or hearing God’s voice)” (281). Secondly, in the analogous section of the text describing Brief Psychotic Disorder, the following appears: “It is important to distinguish symptoms of Brief Psychotic Disorder from culturally sanctioned response patterns. For example, in some religious ceremonies, an individual may report hearing voices, but these do not generally persist and are not perceived as abnormal by most members of the person’s community” (303).

The Outline for Cultural Formulation provides the clinician a concise tool to specify the following information concerning the cultural context that is relevant to clinical care: cultural identity of the individual, cultural explanations of the individual’s illness, cultural factors related to psychosocial environment and levels of functioning, cultural elements of the relationship between the individual and the clinician, and overall cultural assessment for diagnosis and care. Religion is explicitly mentioned in the third section so as to encourage the assessment of “the role of religion . . . in providing emotional, instrumental, and information support” (1994, 844). This outline for cultural formulation is more fully explicated in a recent chapter by Lu, Lim, and Mezzich (1995).

A major innovation in DSM-IV relevant to this topic is the new diagnostic category entitled Religious or Spiritual Problem defined as follows: “This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of spiritual values that may not necessarily be related to an organized...