Spirituality and Mental Illness

by Rev. Laura Mancuso, MS, CRC

March 2010

Rev. Laura Mancuso

There are many different lenses through which we can view the experience of mental illness. Today, I would like to speak about it from a spiritual perspective.

For some people reading these words, mental health challenges strike close to your heart. It may be something that you, or a loved one, struggle with on a daily basis. Others may encounter mental illness in the distressing behavior of a neighbor, co-worker, or friend. But everyone is touched by mental health issues in some way.

What do you suppose are the chances that any one of us will experience mental illness in a given year? The National Institute of Mental Health has conducted complex studies of the epidemiology of mental illness. They have calculated that 1 in 4 American adults (26%) will have a diagnosable mental disorder each year— 58 million people. Nearly 1 in 2 people will have a psychiatric disorder over the course of their lifetimes.

I am speaking primarily about depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and mania (which, when it alternates with depression, is called “bipolar disorder”). While some among us will be fortunate enough to come out ahead in this statistical roulette—living and dying without ever developing a diagnosable mental health condition—none of us who is engaged with life will be able to completely avoid losses which lead to feeling, at least temporarily, grief, disorientation and/or fear.

The good news is that while such suffering cannot be avoided, it is not a cosmic mistake. It is not without meaning, and you are most definitely not alone!

• When a physician is diagnosing depression, the symptoms that he or she looks for are things like: being slowed down; feeling overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, or pessimism; an inability to experience pleasure; difficulty concentrating; sleep disturbance; weight gain or weight loss. This is the medical view of depression. But the main spiritual crisis inherent in depression is DESPAIR.

• The medical symptoms of anxiety disorders include: excessive worry; an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep; irritability; lack of concentration; trembling; shortness of breath, etc. But the main spiritual crisis inherent in anxiety disorders is FEAR and a LACK OF TRUST.

• The medical symptoms of schizophrenia include: delusions; hallucinations; disordered thinking; social withdrawal; blunted emotions. But the primary spiritual crisis in the experience of schizophrenia is ALIENATION.

• The medical description of mania includes things like: racing thoughts; rapid talking; decreased need for sleep; extreme irritability, euphoric feelings, or distraction; poor judgment. But when we consider mania from a spiritual perspective, the main difficulty is a relentless RESTLESSNESS.

I am not saying that mental illnesses are only spiritual in nature. Nor I am saying that they should be treated solely by spiritual practices and spiritual support. What I am saying is that mental distress has a spiritual dimension, like all serious health conditions. Mental health and mental illness are inextricably linked with the spiritual journey.

The spiritual crises I mention as being associated with various mental health issues are not things that any of us would voluntarily sign up for. People can literally get lost in the despair, fear, lack of trust, alienation, and restlessness that characterize mental illnesses. They can even lose their lives.

Yet suffering is an inevitable part of life. We all experience suffering in one form or another. We may enjoy our lives during the good times when everything is going smoothly. But, truth be told, the easy times usually do not result in the most spiritual growth. It is typically the most difficult phases of our lives that produce the most spiritual depth.

As May Sarton says, “Pain is the great teacher…joy [and] happiness, are what we take and do not question…but pain forces us to think, and to make connections, to sort out what is what, to discover what has been happening to cause it.”

Fortunately, the spiritual problems of despair, fear, lack of trust, alienation, and restlessness can be addressed directly—both by one’s own spiritual practices, and through spiritual support provided by a loving community such as a family or congregation. Spiritual practices that an individual can engage in directly include: tai chi; yoga; other forms of body movement; mindfulness; meditation; prayer; reading sacred or inspiring texts; journal-writing; singing; dancing; artistic expression; making crafts; attending worship services; participating in 12-step groups; taking part in rituals; and consulting with clergy or indigenous healers. Such activities can build resiliency, restore hope, nurture a sense of balance and centeredness, and help us get us through especially difficult times.

All who commit themselves to a spiritual path are bound to experience mental distress. Some religious traditions—such as Hinduism and Buddhism—say that this spiritual journey is our true life’s purpose, and that we will need to return to this realm over and over again, with all of its suffering, until we complete it. Earnest spiritual paths will likely involve venturing into spiritual wildernesses, where there may be few signposts and very little that is familiar to comfort us.

People with mental illness are experienced travelers in this sort of terrain. Just as you might purchase a tour book before venturing to a new continent, you may want to get some tips and pointers from people with mental illness—people who have already journeyed somewhere that you have not yet been.

If we can learn to respect and value the spiritual wisdom of people diagnosed with mental health conditions, we will be respecting their very essence. Then perhaps all of us, as a society, will become more capable of loving this part of ourselves: the part that gets disoriented, that is prone to despair, that loses sight of hope, that falls prey to fear, that cannot feel love, that is constantly in motion, and that keeps us from experiencing that beautiful inner stillness where we rest peacefully in the arms of the Divine Presence.

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