Once upon a time, in the far depths of internet time, back when the Lynx browser was pretty much the standard, I signed up to be a ‘Humanist Priest of the Universal Church’ or some such. Don’t ask me why, I think it was set up so that Americans could get tax-breaks. Not much use for myself who (a) wasn’t American, nor (b) as a student wasn’t paying taxes at the time. I printed off the certificate. laughed about it and forgot about it.
If only I’d known that I’d end up working on an ambulance I may well have paid extra (that is paid anything) to get the Advanced certificate. Let me tell you why…
Every so often we get sent to ‘person behaving strangely’, sometimes this is an adult and sometimes it is a child. When we reach the patient we are told, with a straight face nonetheless, that the patient is possessed by ancestors/spirits/demons*
*Delete as applicable.
Despite being (currently) an evangelical atheist, I have to take this sort of thing seriously, there is however a problem – our training guidelines pull us in two directions.
Direction one – We should respect the culture and traditions of our patients.
Direction two – We should never collude, or reinforce the delusions, of someone who is psychotic.
(Psychosis is defined as ‘irrational beliefs not shared by the patient’s traditions or culture)
You can see the problem that we have.
I have been to a thirteen year old boy who has been possessed by spirits and, when the police arrived, ran off like Linford Christie. Of course they reckoned without the police van coming around the far end of the street.
I’ve been to a teenage girl who has been ‘protected’ from demons by some wall hangings, but that they may have found a way through and this is what is making her sick.
I’ve been to mothers who are channelling spirits in order to drive out the evil ancestors plaguing her daughter (who, unsurprisingly perhaps, has mental health issues).
I’ve been to evangelical Christian cults who have been trying to drive evil spirits out of their elderly relative by throwing salt at them.
I’ve been to countless people who have believed that they were possessed, and have had near superhuman strength to prove it. I’ve seen them ‘levitate’ off beds despite their father sitting on top of them. I’ve seen them running down the street naked, covered in their own excrement all in order to fulfil some direction from God.
So where do I stand? Do I respect the culture and agree that ‘yes, it might be demons’, or do I not reinforce their delusions by reminding them that a urine infection can cause similar symptoms? More importantly, where does madness end and religion begin?