Revealing the Spiritual Wisdom of People with Mental Illness
by Rev. Laura Mancuso, MS, CRC
Rev. Laura Mancuso
I came to the mental health field—and even to the intersection of mental health and spirituality—wanting to help, intending to be of service. What I have come to realize is that many people in recovery from mental illness possess a deep spiritual wisdom from which I can learn a great deal.
In an earlier article, Spirituality and Mental Illness, I described the prevalence of mental health diagnoses and explored the spiritual crises associated with various mental health issues. This follow-up article suggests ways that individuals and congregations can spiritually accompany those who are experiencing the symptoms of a mental disorder.
At a minimum, we can agree to “do no harm”, in the spiritual sense. That means, first of all, not blaming the person or his/her family for the mental health issue, and not judging them for having it.
The following concrete actions can provide spiritual support to someone in mental distress:
1) Be an unflinching guardian of hope. It may be literally impossible for the person to feel optimistic about their future. Reassure them that they will not always feel as badly as they do when they are in the depths of their suffering. Protect this hope and gently remind them of it, even when they cannot believe you.
2) Be a trustworthy friend.
When a person’s world is in chaos and the ground around them seems unstable, your reliable presence can be safe harbor in a storm. Be very clear about what you can and cannot do; it’s okay to take care of yourself first. So promise no more than you can deliver. But always do exactly what you say you will do.
3) Be aware that you may need to DO less than you think. Sometimes the most significant way to support another person is simply to show up fully in the midst of his or her suffering, without panicking or looking away.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, in his book, Love in Action:
“Without doing anything,
things can sometimes go more smoothly
just because of our peaceful presence.
In a small boat when a storm comes, if one person remains solid and calm,
others will not panic
and the boat is more likely to stay afloat.”
4) Insist that the person you know and love is still alive and present, if hidden. Just as you would help a friend living with cancer to see that their whole self is not defined by their diagnosis, so you can help a person with mental illness by reminding them that you still see the healthy and whole person within, even if they feel shattered.
A Quaker woman named Mariellen Gilpin has written a booklet, God’s Healing Grace: Reflections on a Journey With Mental & Spiritual Illness. She acknowledges with gratitude that many in her Quaker meeting simply treat her “as if the essential Mariellen is still in here somewhere.” Tell your friend that you know he or she is still whole, and that you are confident of his or her ability to recover with time.
5) Reference the other person’s alternate reality without labeling it as “wrong” or “abnormal.” When someone you care about is experiencing the alienation and self-doubt associated with alternate realities, you can be spiritually supportive by not judging them. This may be the only reality they have at the moment. So if you denigrate it, you are denigrating their entire world and their very self. However, don’t pretend to agree with it. If you cannot affirm it, you can at least remain neutral.
Jimi Kelley works for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Tennessee. He shared a story about accompanying a woman who perceived that messages were being broadcast into her brain, which was distressing to her. She didn’t want to go to a clinic and have them invalidate her experience. Jimi talked to her about the possibility that she was hearing things that the people at the clinic are not able to hear, and that taking medications might simply reduce her ability to receive the messages. I.e., if she took medications, she might no longer be bothered by the messages… even if they are still being broadcast. Rather than contradicting her experience, his gentle, affirming approach was helpful in enabling her to go for treatment.
6) Be open to the possibility that mental health crises can co-occur with authentic spiritual awakenings.
Sometimes we need to be broken down in order to let go of the old and provide space for something new to take root. Christina and Stanislav Grof coined the term “spiritual emergency” to describe an abrupt spiritual transformation that overwhelms one’s ability to cope.
These authentic spiritual awakenings can occur at the same time as a mental health crisis. Most importantly, don’t assume that the spiritual dimension of the crisis is fabricated or inauthentic just because the individual has been labeled with a psychiatric diagnosis; the two experiences can co-occur, and there are ways to support people to move through these experiences without getting stuck in them.
Keep the person safe, meet their basic needs for food, water, sleep, etc., and let them specify what is helpful in the moment. Some people need to be in constant motion, others need stillness. Some feel most safe indoors, while others want to be outside, in nature, and feel sun on their skin. A person may prefer being alone, or may need to be held. It is a very individualized process.
7) Finally, consider what you may be able to learn from people with mental illness. Instead of pitying people with psychiatric diagnoses or stigmatizing their conditions, I believe we should consider respecting and learning from them.
Spiritual growth requires us to go directly to where our most tender wounds are, opening them up again so that they can be healed at an ever deeper level. When you delve really deeply into spiritual exploration, there’s some pretty scary stuff in there! For example, when you consider the writings of the Christian mystics, for instance, their lives were not easy!. There is the void... there is unblinking self-awareness…
there are disorienting experiences.
I have palpably learned the difference between “helping” and “walking alongside.”
“Spiritual companioning” leaves open the possibility that today you may be the one in need… but next week, it may be me… and back again, over and over. This is the stuff of which real respect is made. It’s not the distanced respect of “I’m in awe of how much you’ve suffered,” but rather, “You have journeyed to places that I want to know more about.”
One of the necessary steps in devotion to a spiritual path is relinquishing control. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, writes about this process. She says that when bad things happen to us, we tend to exclaim, “I’ve lost control of my life!” Yet what we actually lose is “the illusion that we were ever in control of our lives in the first place… This is why it takes a lot of courage to be a human being.”
Adapted from a sermon offered at Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Goleta, California, February 2010.
Rev. Laura L. Mancuso is a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor, interfaith minister, spiritual counselor, and healing energy practitioner based in Goleta, California.