My father is a retired protestant minister and I grew up attending church. When I was a child, Easter was my second favorite holiday. I preferred Christmas because I got presents. At Easter, we hid eggs but didn’t exchange gifts. Of course, when I got older I came to understand just how important Easter is to protestant faiths.
I am writing about religion because of a question that I was asked recently at Viterbo University, a beautiful school in La Crosse, Wisconsin. About 550 people attended my speech at Viterbo, which traces its origins to a small school founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
“How important is spiritually to mental health recovery?” a woman in the audience asked me.
I wish that I could tell you that I gave her a great answer. But I didn’t.
Instead, I talked about how I had encountered people in some religious groups who still believe that persons with mental disorders are harboring devils. And I’ve met with other religious based groups that are active in helping the homeless and ministering to persons with mental illnesses. In Knoxville, Tennessee, I actually had a mental health provider tell me that the local churches were hurting recovery efforts because their members were too generous. They were so eager to give away clothing and food that it was difficult to persuade persons with mental disorders to go into treatment because life on the streets was “too comfortable.”
I told the woman in the Viterbo audience that I felt religious groups should be doing more. I wasn’t referring to more money, more food, and more clothing, which are always needed. Rather, I was referring to doing more to educate their members and eliminate stigma. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression impact as many as one in four families. Yet, these are not subjects that I’ve ever heard mentioned in a church sermon. Because these illnesses are believed to be biologically based disorders, there should be no shame in getting them, only shame in not helping someone who does. But many ministers seem uncomfortable discussing mental disorders, perhaps because of Biblical passages that refer to the casting out of demons, etc.
One reason why I wasn’t able to answer the woman’s question is because I really don’t know of any studies that looked at how important spirituality is to recovery. Recognizing a higher power is a vital step in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. But I have never heard it mentioned in treatment sessions that I attended with my son, Mike. When I mentioned my standard refrain — the heart can get sick and so can the mind so we must understand that mental illnesses are exactly that: illnesses — the woman in the audience agreed. But gently chastised me for not saying more about the healing power of spiritual beliefs.
So here is a question that I want to pose. How important is spiritually to recovery when a person has a mental disorder? Last week, I wrote that I believe HOPE is essential. That comment irked a reader who sent me an email. He noted that if bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain than a person’s attitude is immaterial. “Does HOPE matter if you have a broken leg?” he asked. For him, medication is the solution.
What’s your view? How important is spirituality in recovery if you have a mental illness or love someone who does?
Share your thoughts and your stories please.