Spirituality and Mental Illness

by Diana Nielsen

I have been wondering for a long time about the recurring bouts of depression that I have experienced for the last 30 years. A long time researcher at the University of California has suggested that there may be a 70% inherited component. This can be a comforting thought because it helps me to believe that it is not my own fault. When I get depressed, I feel down on myself and unable to think clearly. I have trouble making even little decisions and do not want to be around people or say much. Nothing I do seems to bring me pleasure and I would rather be sitting on my sofa than meeting friends, working or listening to music. Like other people, I wonder if I am doing this to myself and what I could do to get better. I do believe that it is very important to find a compatible doctor and I have been greatly helped by medication.

When we have a "physical" ailment, such as a headache or stomachache, we can often take a pill and the pain goes away. What about these diseases of the mind? I have tried to describe the feelings to people who have not experienced them. Because it seems to be a pain of the whole body, the soul if you will, I have wondered if mental illness could in some way for some people be a disease of the soul.

Rabbi Scopitz from Temple Beth Davis is the Director of Pastoral Care at the Rochester Psychiatric Center. I recently heard him discuss the spiritual dimensions of mental health. He reminded us that Carl Jung, one of Freud's successors, thought of mental illness as a spiritual disease. Spirituality can be identified with religion but it doesn't have to be. Thinking of God in whatever way that you do, as a Higher Power, an Energy Force, a Creator can give you a sense that you have a meaningful place in the scheme of the universe. As I listen to people speak and I read about spirituality, I kept hearing over and over the theme of the importance of feeling a connectedness with other people and the world.

A Scottish philosopher said touch, not vision, is the primary sense. We know that little babies who are not touched will not thrive. Rabbi Scopitz suggested that to encounter God is to encounter oneself in the most intense way possible, that mental illness may be an unease of sorts, a sense of disconnection and confusion from being out of touch with the world around you. We know that someone with a mood disorder has trouble feeling joy and may suffer from anxiety, fear and discomfort. He may feel isolated from family and friends. This feeling of abandonment, rejection and stigma makes it difficult to work and can lead to a downward financial spiral which only reinforces feelings of unworthiness.

The Rabbi suggested that treatment to help reconnect the person with society so that he can reclaim his place in the world can bring healing. With intensive case management and problem solving, there is hope. Drugs also can provide relief from symptoms. Tu Moonwalker, an Apache healer, says "If someone comes to me and has an emotional problem, I can use herbs to calm him down and then use the psychology I learned to help him talk about it. Then my teaching will tell him what to do, what to learn, what to look for and how to avoid it again." Counseling is important as well as socialization, finding good housing, meaningful work whether paid or volunteer, and recreation. For Rabbi Scopitz and other healers, caregivers are doing spiritual work.

A Native American healer Annie Kahn, who is Navaho, says "Without exception spirituality is inherent in healing. Spirituality is healing. Spirituality is power. No medicine woman will say that she has power because the power belongs to the Great Spirit. It is not hers! Everybody has a certain amount of power. You have power. All of us have power. A medicine woman may use a particular object to make things happen for her. My power is hidden in my prayer. I say 'hidden' because you can't see it. My prayer has names. The names I call upon will assist me - just as you would if I were to call upon you by your name and ask you for your help. You will naturally want to help me. These prayer names might be the Everlasting One or the Unbreakable One."

Johnny Moses, another teacher of native American spirituality, says "the teachings are very simple and basic. The great mystery is God or the creator. The love of God moves all things. When we begin to use the love of God, we see the love of God is everywhere, in trees, animals, rocks - the same sacred breath.

Our native people believe there is one creator who is everywhere you look. We believe there are many healing spirits - which is the same as the Christian Holy Spirit. Of course, this healing spirit is the love of God, the love we feel in our hearts."

Josette Mondanaro, an M.D. who graduated from the Syracuse University Medical School, puts it another way. She found medical school dehumanizing, treating medicine as a science like physics. She does realize, however, that a vast amount of information is needed. She sees a distinction between a "bloody nose" and a "patient with a bloody nose." Again, she mentions that there is not enough appreciation of the connection between doctor and patient. "Medicine is not set up for people who see the complexity of mind and body." Her father, who was a doctor, was a strong believer in the healing properties of body and mind. If something is out of synchrony, it could create disease. That's how she practices. Applying this concept to the larger world, many people recognize that humankind is increasingly out of kilter with the rhythms of the Earth, and that this disharmony is injuring not only ourselves but the entire planet.

Dr. Mondanaro feels that "many, many times I thought I would have been more comfortable as a shaman. I'm so totally involved with the oneness of the mind and the body that there's no place for me, no comfortable niche already set out for me in western medicine. I have to make it myself." She sees spirituality as very important to healing: "I think the flesh is just the outer manifestation of the spirit. If one believes illness can be caused by witchcraft working on the spirit, it is a possibility for that believer. Miracle cures are the result of spiritual healing power rather than cures imposed from outside the body by a doctor." Belief can make something work as the power shifts from the healer to the sick person.

She sees two kinds of events where diseases of the spirit can lead to physical ailments. The first kind are primary life changes which require only minor readjustments. The secondary changes are major events which require enormous readjustments such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or new job challenges. "If we can cope with stress and adjust to the demands, we will not become ill. If we are not 'stuck,' our body will feel the effect resisting becoming physically sick." Traditional people are very aware of this, whereas most modern medicine doctors are not. Shamans have a sense that their community helps keep them safe. Dr. Montanaro says she feels like a left-handed person in a right-handed world.

She sees the healer as opening a space to let in her energy. Without the belief, the space is not created. She sees people who consult doctors becoming more and more cynical, expecting less and less from their doctors, challenging them to "cure them." This pessimism closes off healing so that the doctor may feel it is difficult to be able to cure. As people become more aware of their bodies and seek out doctors with whom they have rapport, healing is helped.

There is another tradition coming from Hispanic culture of the curandera, a healer who believes if the patient recovers, it is God's will. God's will can bring equilibrium back into lives. After the avenues of cultural, familial and religious healing have been tried, if the curandera cannot heal, the patient will enter the mainstream of society's medical care. The belief is that the saints present petitions to God asking him to intercede. This doesn't supplant one's own prayer directed to God but reinforces it and gives the intention more meaning. Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Spirit join the family and the healer in helping the patient. One woman said she thought her gift of curing with the mind and experience brings love to the people whereas the doctor use pills. Her patients feel that her hands and touch can help heal them.

At a conference in Rochester sponsored by the Mental Health Association called Spirituality in Recovery, I heard about ten speakers share the podium addressing this topic. They were nurses, case managers, ministers, counselors, professors and consumers. A local consumer group has created the Chestnut Café, a Christ-centered peer group for people coping with mental health issues, which serves dinner once a month. Another speaker was from Mainquest, a comprehensive treatment service program for people with chemical dependency problems which offers inpatient and outpatient services, as well as community and supportive living residences. I was touched by another speaker who is the Director of Outreach for Corpus Christi Church.

Dr. Block, a psychiatrist at Harvard, thinks doctors may miss up to 70% of symptoms that reveal anxiety and depression including headaches, fatigue, and restlessness. " By focusing solely on physical ills, a doctor may fail to treat the real problem. Middle-aged men maimed by Vietnam detest themselves for their buried hurts and their country for ignoring this hurt. They are in need of healing. Bent old men, broken old women, hated for their age, their 'uselessness' are in need of healing. As are all the beaten . . . children whose disease is having no power as well as the dying who are detested because their disease is AIDS." This is a very strong indictment.

I recently came back from a retreat where our teacher repeated often that community is stronger than willpower. This is a common theme in the reading I have done about some traditional ways of healing. I was thinking about this again last night as I attended a support group. People often ask the question "How can I find someone who will accept me the way I am and support me through my difficult times?" At the meeting people were talking about what has helped them get through the tough times and how they can approach family members who care but may not know what to do. It helps people to listen to other people who have shared some of their experiences.

We need to bring back isolated people into harmony and balance using whatever methods we have. It is important to listen to them accepting their reality and sense of what will work for them. When we sit and talk and know the person, when we seek a connectedness between the individual and the healer, then we can dispel some of the fear that produces mistrust. We must remember the influence that the presence of the healer has on the person who is not feeling well. All these healers talked about a predictability, an order and harmony where the healer has to be tough enough so people won't panic but at the same time gentle and caring. Like most things, it takes a balance.

Plato said "As you ought not attempt to cure the eyes without treating the heart or the head without treating the body as a whole, so you should not treat the body without treating the soul, and the treatment of the soul, my good friend, is by means of certain charms, and these charms are words of the right sort. By the use of such words is temperance engendered in the soul and as soon as it is engendered and present, one may easily secure health to the head, and to the rest of the body also."

Starhawk, a traditional healer said "We challenge the emptiness of estrangement whenever we make a deep connection with another, whenever we love, whenever we create community."


Perrone, Bobette, H. Henrietta Stockel, and Victoria Krueger. Medicine Women, Curanderas and Woman Doctors. University of Oklahoma Press, March 1993.

Smoley, Richard. A Non-Indian's Guide to Native American Spirituality. Yoga Journal, January/February 1992, pp. 83 - 89.

Spirituality in Recovery Conference sponsored by the Mental Health Association.

Monroe County Community Hospital. November 29, 2000.

Welcome Weekend with Ken Nelson at Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, December, 2000.

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