© Rev. Barbara F. Meyers 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 9, 2005

It has been widely observed that a person who has gone through suffering can as a result become a source of great wisdom, healing power and inspiration for others. Today on this Sunday of National Mental Health Week, we will look at how the phenomenon of the ‘wounded healer’ , especially how it plays out in my mental health community ministry.


In 1978 I was hospitalized for post-partum depression in the psychiatric ward of Washington Hospital here in Fremont. I was suicidal, desperate, and frightened. My own self-concept had undergone a serious blow. I did not like being there, around ‘those kind of people.’ For, the ward was filled with people whose personal and psychiatric circumstances were far worse than mine. The medicine and psychotherapy helped some, but even when about to be released I still was terrified that I couldn’t live outside this setting, and hated myself for being there. After one group session which hadn’t yielded much for me, I remember going to talk to a very sick woman with anorexia nervosa who I had sometimes talked to. As I sat down and started crying, she came over and held me in a tight hug – a kind of mother’s embrace. And she kept holding me as I sobbed. After a few minutes I stopped crying and realized that I felt a lot better.

Now, here was someone who was in the midst of a seriously dangerous psychiatric disorder, unable to care for herself, and having daily confrontations with the staff and her physicians over eating issues, and yet I came away from this exchange feeling better than my sessions with the ‘official’ therapists.

Afterward I was to reflect how I was helped as much by the patients as by the medical establishment. When I have asked others who have been in psychiatric wards about this, nearly everyone tells me that oddly enough they were also helped significantly by the other patients. In fact, I have discovered there is a whole self-help movement sometimes calling themselves ‘psychiatric survivors’ who believe that they only need self-help groups and not medical intervention. While I don’t agree that this would work for everyone, there is clearly something that a fellow wounded human being can give to one living with similar problems.

What is going on here? I’ll start exploring this question by starting at the beginning and talk about shamanism.


Humankind’s oldest religion and known way of healing is shamanism. Nearly universally known, it originated in primitive times and has survived to today in many indigenous cultures including Siberian, Native American, Central and Southeast Asian, Korean, Celtic, and African. Typically, a person doesn’t become a shaman simply by willing it, it is the supernatural spirits that choose him or her. The career of a shaman commonly begins with an involuntary visionary episode, called a ‘shamanic illness’ or ‘shamanic crisis’. In Spiritual Emergency Stanslav and Christina Grof explain:

‘During this time, future shamans might lose contact with the environment and have powerful inner experiences that involve journeys into the underworld and attacks by demons who expose them to incredible tortures and ordeals. These often culminate in experiences of death and dismemberment followed by rebirth and ascent to celestial regions. Following such a crisis, one becomes a shaman and returns to the community as a fully functioning and honored member.’ Thereafter, the career of a shaman consists of blessing and healing others by means of rituals, chants and entering into non-ordinary states of consciousness to contact the spirit world on their client’s behalf.’

Now what do you think would happen if someone displaying these symptoms came to the attention of modern psychiatric medicine? I know of several such cases. One of them is my own. Although there has been growing respect of religion within the professional mental health community in the last 15 or so years, most modern psychiatrists would not understand or respect the religious significance of a shamanic crisis and would use psychotropic medications to bring the person back into ‘sanity.’

And, who can say whether this is right or wrong? I continue to take these kinds of medications to maintain normal mental function. And, at least for me, they don’t interfere with my religious convictions – in fact they make the work I do possible. However, I do know from reading and from talking to others that not everyone has had this kind of positive experience juggling the compelling nature of a shamanic crisis with the treatment of the modern mental health system.

Archetypes, definition of wounded healer

One of the most important teachings of the great pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung, was the concept of ‘Archetype.’ An Archetype is an original model of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are patterned. Jung used the concept of archetype as a prototype of human behavior often revealed in dreams and myths. Examples of the archetypes that he identified are: mother, father, hero, warrior, and martyr. This past summer we had an excellent sermon on the Enneagram, which many people in this congregation have become interested in. Some feel that Archetypes can be understood through a person’s character via the Enneagram. One of the archetypes Jung identified was that of the ‘The Wounded Healer.’ A shaman is an example of the wounded healer. The author and educator Dr. Joy Dunkin has explained the origin and function of the wounded healer archetype in a mental health context as follows: For Jung, this wounded healer archetype originated with the Greek myth of Chiron who was physically wounded, and by way of overcoming the pain of his own wounds Chiron became the compassionate teacher of healing.

Who is The Wounded Healer? Many articles and books have been written about ‘The Wounded Healer.’ It is the person who has gone through suffering, sometimes great, and as a result of that process has become a source of great wisdom, healing power and inspiration for others. In fact, the archetypal wounded healer undergoes a transformation as a result of their wound, their suffering and pain. They can actually transcend it, and successfully lead themselves to a path of service. It is as if the wound itself helps you drive yourself to an inner journey that becomes the transformation itself. One strips away the selfish, ego-based feeling of being all alone in our wound and expands to see others and how if one chooses a different role, one can help. Contemporary psychotherapists latched on to the concept of this archetype and soon began to see themselves as ‘The Wounded Healer’ in their societies, whereby they use the pain of their own life experiences to facilitate the mental health and healing of others.

‘The Wounded Healer’ that Carl Jung was referring to, is the teacher who is able to self-empower others to trust themselves to the extent that they finally give themselves permission to FEEL that which has been too fearfully painful for the emotional body to cope with. As Dr. Dunkin says, there are many books written about the wounded healer. In a cursory search, I found 20 books with the words ‘wounded healer’ in the title. One of them is this one ‘Carl Jung: Wounded Healer of the Soul’ by Claire Dunne. In it, Jung is described as a consummate wounded healer, and the person who first brought this important concept to western minds.

Ways we see the wounded healer in our society

We seem to naturally seek out people who have lived through situations that we are struggling with and just by their very presence they give us hope that things can work out for us.
– Support groups of all kinds: AA, grief, mental health, mothers, weight watchers, cancer, Alzheimer’s, … Just look at the Wednesday issue of the Argus (or on my website) for an exhaustive list. – Therapists
– Ministers and pastoral counselors
– A friend who has had a similar problem to yours helping you out.

We are now in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement is of highest significance in Judaism. It is a day when you acknowledge the hurts that you have caused another person and receive forgiveness from them. It is a ritual which, like confession in the Catholic Church, cleanses one’s conscience and allows a new start to be made. I can’t help but thinking that receiving forgiveness from someone who you have hurt is an example of the healing function of a wounded healer. Of course, it is more complex than this, but I do see this one parallel.

Maybe some of you have experiences either being a wounded healer or being helped by one. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to think of something from your life that you may wish to share with the others here, and in a few minutes, I’ll ask you to share. In the mean time, I’ll share how the concept of ‘wounded healer’ fits my ministry.

How the concept of ‘Wounded Healer’ fits in my ministry

My whole ministry is largely motivated by my own personal experience of being ‘wounded’ as a mental patient. It is this and the calling I felt from it that is behind all that I do. My activities are all examples of what a wounded healer does. Here are some examples:

I work about 10 hours a week as an assistant manager and peer counselor at the Reaching Across mental health care center in Fremont. It is a peer-support center for people with mental health and emotional difficulties.

Along with ‘Scotty’ Scott, I started a new support group for people living with depression and sadness. This group will be on-going and meet on the 2nd and 4th Monday evenings of every month.

As many of you know, I have written a book based on the Caring Congregation curriculum that I led in January and February. I am in the process of publishing the curriculum. My first leader training for future teachers is scheduled for the weekend of November 18-20 at the Walnut Creek church. Several Bay Area UU congregations are sending people to be trained.

I have been trained as an anti-stigma speaker by the Alameda County Mental Health Association speaker’s bureau. In that role, I have gone out to several locations to help give a mental health anti-stigma message.

Now, I’ll ask you to share.

I’d love to talk to any of you about this concept and how you see it emerging in my ministry.