‘I am God’: Why delusional people often think they’re deities

Passengers on a flight from San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, got a scare on Monday when a delirious woman screaming “I am God” attempted to pry open the aircraft door midflight. The plane landed safely after passengers intervened, but her actions — shouting that she was a deity while trying to move a door that’s humanly impossible to budge while the cabin is pressurized — could signal a grandiose delusion. Despite a lack of discussion on the topic, grandiose delusions are fairly common in the world of mental illness.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

In this particular case, the paranoia happened midflight. According to a passenger named Scott Smith, who was sitting directly behind the woman, she “wasn’t acting right” and had a small “outburst” as the plane took off. “I read it as: One of them is trying to get over the fear of flying,” Smith told the Idaho Statesman, referring to another female passenger the woman seemed to be traveling with. “I could tell that one or both were uneasy with flying.” Smith put on headphones and tuned in to a movie when, the next thing he knew, two men were jumping from their seats to subdue the woman.

“She got up from her seat, started screaming, ran straight to the door, and tried opening it,” another passenger, Danny Torres, told local Boise news KTVB. “She kept screaming over and over again, ‘I am God, I am God.’ The pilot came on the loudspeaker and told us to ‘stop her at all costs’ from opening up the door,” he said. In a video of the incident, it appears that’s exactly what passengers did, pinning the woman to the ground and tying her feet together so she couldn’t run back to the door.

Authorities reportedly took the woman into custody when the flight landed in Boise as scheduled and then transferred her over to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare for medical evaluation. A spokesperson from the organization declined to offer Yahoo Lifestyle an update on the woman’s condition, citing an Idaho law that precludes the department from “provid[ing] any confidential medical or personally identifying information for civil commitments.”

So while the woman’s condition, both during the flight and after, remains unknown at this point, it’s worth noting that grandiose delusions are a common occurrence in a variety of mental illnesses — one that can be overlooked if people aren’t educated about them.

Delusions themselves are defined in the psychology world as “fixed, false beliefs that are not shared by people of the same educational and cultural background.” The most common delusions are persecutory — meaning the person feels he or she is being persecuted or targeted in some way. This can manifest as someone believing the FBI is following that individual (think, A Beautiful Mind) or that an enemy is attempting to poison him or her (a common one among people with schizophrenia).

Grandiose delusions (GDs), also known as delusions of grandeur, involve the belief that an individual suddenly has superior qualities — this could manifest as fame, wealth, genius, or omnipresence. A person may suddenly believe he or she is the president, or have the IQ of Albert Einstein. No matter what direction it takes, GDs are characterized by a person’s immovable conviction that what that individual is saying is true.

According to a 2011 paper on the topic from the Clinical Psychology Review, these delusions occur in a number of psychiatric conditions, including two-third of patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder, half of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, and a “substantial proportion” of patients with substance abuse disorders.

There are typically two schools of thought regarding the cause. One is that GDs are a defense mechanism in direct response to severely damaged self-esteem, a way to more or less counterbalance the self-loathing that someone is experiencing. The other is that GDs are simply overblown emotions that the person was already experiencing.

In one of the most compelling studies on the topic, researchers found evidence that grandiose delusions are simply “direct exaggerations of the emotional state of individuals” and unrelated to a person’s self-esteem. One of the individual cases they looked at in this study echoed what the woman on the plane was reportedly saying, “I am God.”

Although some have speculated that patients experiencing religious delusions are more difficult to treat, a 2014 study published in the Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology journal discounts this concept. “We found no evidence that people with religious delusions would be less likely to engage in any form of help,” the researchers concluded. Higher levels of flexibility may make them particularly amenable to cognitive behavioral approaches, but particular care should be taken to preserve self-esteem and valued aspects of beliefs and experiences.”

Much like other mental disorders, the best treatment options are those that take a multi-pronged approach. In the case of true psychosis, hospitalization is recommended. But after a person is stabilized, psychotherapy (or other therapies) in combination with medication can have a positive outcome.

Whether or not the woman on the plane bound for Boise was experiencing this phenomenon, it’s an important reminder that mental health issues such as grandiose delusions can be treated. And when they’re putting other people in danger, they should.

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