Mental Illness, Religion, and Spirituality

Healing, recovery, or simply living with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder may require medical, psychological, and spiritual support. Struggling with mental illness can at times feel like spiritual war. As someone living with bipolar disorder, while in the deepest of depressions, I’ve experienced what I can only describe as a living hell, and while hypomanic or manic, I’ve believed myself called by God to a higher purpose.

When churches demonize or ostracize the mentally ill, they quite frankly sin by hurting those in need of love and compassion. Many people first go their faith community for help. Churches and faith communities MUST be compassionate and refer people to the proper resources to address their psychiatric or psychological needs. Belief and prayer do not make brain disorders miraculously disappear, but a loving community – religious or secular – can offer support, encouragement, and hope.

  • NAMI FaithNet promotes caring faith communities and the role of faith in recovery for individuals and families affected by mental illness.
  • Mental Health and the Church encourages individuals living with mental illness, educates family members, and equips church leaders to provide effective and compassionate care to any faced with the challenges of mental illness.
  • Research shows that the meditative practice of mindfulness, which is similar to contemplative prayer and has its roots in Zen Buddhism, reduces the severity of many mental health symptoms.

This post started out as a response to Just Plain Ol Vic’s blog post Damn the Devil Inside (My Wife). My comment to Vic was: “Possible for bipolar disorder to be understood as a biological illness of brain and to experience it on a spiritual level as the metaphorically equivalent of the devil. To deny treatment is a mistake. To lay blame is a mistake. But to experience severe depression is to live through a very real hell.”

28 thoughts on “Mental Illness, Religion, and Spirituality

  1. supermommyoftwins January 26, 2015 / 9:40 am

    On Plain ol Vic’s blog I commented: “I feel comfortable commenting here because you say you enjoy gaining new insights and perceptions. I have bipolar disorder. I am also a Christian and believe in the spiritual realm. I 100% agree that my illness is physical. The neurons in my brain do not function the same as most everyone else’s. But I don’t think that spiritual matters can be discounted completely.”

    On this blog I will comment further: For me, it is a constant battle. “Are these bipolar-induced paranoid thoughts? Or am I being attacked spiritually?” This is a question that many non-believers don’t understand.

    My father was a staunch Christian believer who refused to label himself as Bipolar and thus rejected medications and therapy. He did not ask himself the above questions and instead accepted paranoia as his truth. His religious antics were extreme and unpredictable.

    I myself believe there is a balance. Thank you for writing about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 26, 2015 / 10:20 am

      Balance is so important. Medical treatment combined with respect for one’s faith. It can be a struggle, without doubt, to tease out the two. I do believe that you can treat the illness medically while taking from it spiritual lessons. It is human nature to look for and find meaning.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. writerwannabe763 January 22, 2015 / 2:53 pm

    ‘Religion’ is a very generic name supposedly for the church and various types/denominations of those of faith. And the various churches/religions have their views on mental illness. Some as referred to think of it differently than physical illness, somehow as though those suffering from various mental disorders are demonic and that the persons suffering are somehow responsible for their illness because they don’t have enough faith… etc etc.. The same opinion does not for the most part go for those with physical disabilities. My belief is that if the church that a person is involved with does not support those with mental illness or treats them as somehow less of a person of faith.. then they need to find another church. Those suffering from mental illness don’t certainly need others judging them as being less than for example a Christian, because of their illness. And there are very loving people ready to embrace and support them…. Diane

    Liked by 1 person

  3. tonyroberts64 January 22, 2015 / 1:44 pm

    Very well expressed, Kitt. I would only add that I often suspect those of us with mental illness are actually more in tune with the “powers and principalities” that do battle with the human spirit than those who do not face such struggles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 22, 2015 / 2:35 pm

      Actually, I do agree, but it is difficult to express in a nuanced fashion. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters spoke to me, for it can be a struggle to discern what is Truth and what is Deception wearing Truth’s robes.

      Like

  4. dyane January 22, 2015 / 1:42 pm

    Reading this post and reviewing the comments brought up this memory, strangely enough, which I haven’t thought about for a while:

    My ex had undiagnosed bipolar one disorder and when he moved from New Jersey to California to live we me (we met as pen pas) no one in his family, including him, told me that he had been hospitalized at 18 for a mental “break” for a whole month.

    We lived together for three years. Then he broke up with me as he said he was in love with a so-called born again Christian who was in the process of getting divorced.

    He came from a strictly Catholic family. After he dumped me, he had a full-on psychotic break. He shaved his full head of wavy hair and he told everyone he encountered that he was a Buddhist Monk. He wrote strange sayings on Hanes white t-shirts with a black Sharpie, and he visited different churches in Santa Cruz to hang out.

    Despite our break-up, I helped him in a few dicey situations as his family was in New Jersey and they couldn’t get out right away.

    Why do I bring this up? Well, I find it interesting when some people become psychotic and believe they are religious figures, such as my ex. Why our brains wired to do that, I don’t know. Also, he had never been a Buddhist. The whole thing was a huge nightmare and what I describe here is just the very tip of the bipolar iceberg. I’m glad that he broke up with me, as we weren’t right for each other in fundamental ways.

    (That all happened years before I was diagnosed with bipolar….)

    thanks for letting me ramble….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 22, 2015 / 2:31 pm

      You bet. Neuroscientists at the University of Utah scanning LDS brains to learn about religious cognition.
      http://ow.ly/HN3BK
      Korenberg: “I think that what we’re expecting to find here is that Mormons aren’t really going to be that different from Jews or Muslims.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. e January 22, 2015 / 11:05 am

    Though not intended to be posted it sparked vital dialogue Trailblazer… Awesomeness

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 22, 2015 / 2:16 pm

      Thanks. I had to edit it, for the initial comment could be miscontrued when taken out of context of a conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Susan Irene Fox January 22, 2015 / 9:49 am

    Kitt, this is such a thoughtful and compassionate post. I have kept my bp condition a secret in my church because of the lack of compassion I anticipate, and because of how I have observed someone else with depression has been treated. I commend and appreciate the way you have given dignity to those of us with this illness – especially those of us who are faith-filled yet do not have a community inside our own churches.

    Thank you and bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 22, 2015 / 2:15 pm

      The first time I entered seminary, I attended Mission Lutheran in Laguna Niguel. Pastor Bill Snyder knew I had bipolar disorder and supported me in applying for and attending seminary. Not all parishioners may understand, but many pastors do.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 23, 2015 / 11:23 pm

      Susan, I neglected to support you. For some reason, I overlooked your name, saw your blond hair, and confused you with a local Lutheran I know. The pastor at the local Lutheran church is quite open-minded. I realize not all pastors are. Not all church communities are educated about mental illness. That is why we need outreach to faith communities.

      Like

  7. Zoe January 21, 2015 / 8:57 pm

    I was flirting with a post I wrote about my experience with church and my bipolar disorder diagnosis. I still don’t feel comfortable sharing it because I don’t want to sound anti-church, since I actually do enjoy church.

    Let me add: I believe in God. I got baptized in the sea. I can safely say my faith in God is the primary reason my suicidal thoughts have never become real attempts and I’d dare say that every time my near attempts have been interrupted it must have been a Higher Power (long story.)

    Anyways.

    I was visiting a church once. Pastor said, “—and the demons came out! Now, demons back then are the mental illness of today!” I’m there like… Wait a minute here. I went up to him, asked him to talk to me about that. I told him I had bipolar disorder and wanted to understand this theory of his that I was possessed. Ignored me, never returned my calls, never answered my emails.

    Another church wanted to… what’s that thing, oh yeah, exorcism. I was attending a baptism of a friend’s baby and the priest “knew about me through her” and he’s like, “I can heal you. We can drive the demon out.”

    A lot of religions view ANY illness as consequence of the devil / demons. At this point I’ve just learned to laugh and do my thing. I still believe in God, still enjoy going to non-radical churches (well not since my agoraphobia got worse, but you know what I mean) and still find my faith is a super positive help with coping.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kitt O'Malley January 21, 2015 / 9:16 pm

      Obviously, those churches were uninformed. Mental illness is not a sign that someone is evil or possessed. But, being depressed is HELL. I’m not talking about the hell described in the Bible, for when it comes right down to it, that is an abstract concept, really. I have lived unendurable pain. I survived it, for I sought help. Psychological help. Faith communities MUST work in collaboration with medical and psychological treatment to help the entire person – body, mind, and spirit – to heal, to recover. Check out Nami FaithNet. Their mission: “promoting caring faith communities and promoting the role of faith in recovery”

      Liked by 2 people

  8. roughghosts January 21, 2015 / 8:27 pm

    Having watched good and dedicated people (including an Anglican pastor) be rejected by their churches after suffering breakdowns or diagnosis with mental illness I find this a very troubling notion. And if you have ever experienced psychosis, Ezekiel with his wheels within wheels and Paul on the road to Damascus take on a new flavour…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 21, 2015 / 8:42 pm

      It is troubling, thus the need for a nuanced approach. I’m not talking possession. I’m saying that when I was depressed, I lived in hell, but through no fault of my own. Exorcism does not help treat mental illness. I actually did not intend to post this. I wrote it as a comment and meant to save it as a draft for a future post.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Just Plain Ol' Vic January 21, 2015 / 8:22 pm

    Kitt, great insight as usual. I have absolutely no issue using religion as another means of support. I just don’t like seeing it used as a means of denying potential treatment options.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 21, 2015 / 8:40 pm

      I didn’t intend on publishing this comment. Meant to save it as a draft – food for future thought. Oops. Obviously, wrong to deny medical treatment or to lay blame.

      Liked by 1 person

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