Spiritually, Mental Illness and Recovery

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.”

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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.

Happy Easter.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Joseph Meyer says

    I believe that spirituality can be helpful to some, but it probably depends on individual experiences with religion. Our son was attending a pre-school at a nearby church when the coordinator of that program told us that she could no longer accomodate our son’s needs. We accepted her recommendation of a special education program at the public elementary school. During times of instability, our son has shown a lot of hostility toward churches. And, my guess is that somebody at the preschool told him on numerous occasions that God would not like the way he was behaving. On the other extreme, a pastor of a different church that I once attended went away for weeks to be treated for severe depression. And, when he returned, he took time at every mass to ask parishioners to pray for those affected by mental illnesses. As the parent of a child with severe mental illness, I have a lot of questions about matters of spirituality and went from being a pretty devout Catholic to being agnostic. My spiritual journey is partly related to church abuse scandals, but our son’s inability to fit into the church culture was a major factor. I’m not sure that I’ll remain agnostic, but nothing seems very certain at the moment. Yet, despite all of the uncertainty, it’s a good thing that I have a more realistic view of reality for those with severe mental illnesses. I have a much greater appreciation for diversity.

  2. Joseph, good reply. I think that our experiences shape our interpretation of “religion” for sure. I taught a workshop for women recently at a 12 step type of treatment program and was really impressed with the staff who worked there. Very positive and warm. Other places far less so.

    Typically I am sure is what are peoples’ contact with folks with mental illnesses. As mentioned education is the key so people have compassion. Just an awareness of the struggle families go through can be a benefit.

    I am sad Joseph that you did not find more compassion and support for your son. Sadly we can find compassion for kids with cancer but not for kids with mental illnesses. Its too slow of a change…

  3. First of all, hope and a wide array of emotions do matter if you have a broken leg, or cancer, or any other illness (and, to be fair, a broken leg is not a good comparison to most mental illnesses – PTSD, perhaps, would be a good comparison – because a broken leg is an injury, not illness). It has been shown consistently in numerous studies that patients who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illness, and who also have high EI (Emotional Intelligence), live longer. Nothing is purely physical: the mind-body connection is so strong in any illness. And, in general, if someone had no hope, they would see no point in seeking out or accepting treatment – for any illness (passive suicide). In mental illness specifically, lack of hope can and does lead to suicide, everyday.

    Medication is far from the silver bullet, as well. Treating someone with medication alone will fail, or at least fall far from what recovery could have been if treatment had combined therapy, occupational training, social skills, relationships, recreation, and so forth with the medication. More so, it seems that some can even recover without medication, or at least avoid crisis, if given the right community and family support. This is not an anti-medication statement – not at all; medication saved my life – but it is showing that the picture just isn’t that simple. Biological factors do not stand alone – for any disease, really – and biopsychosocialism seems to present a much more accurate picture.

    (and I’ll write more on spirituality later!)


  4. Carlene Byron says

    Templeton Foundation has been providing grants to psychiatric residencies that effectively integrate faith with medicine since 1998. Best resource for studies is probably Center for Study of Faith, Spirituality and Health at Duke. NAMI’s San Antonio chapter is doing great work across broad denominational spectrum; many MH organizations shut out those of us who CAN work with conservative Christians because of their own bad experiences. The best answer I know to those who suggest that the Bible says MI is demon possession (not original, from a Mennonite friend) is to encourage them to view the texts as our non-Western friends do: Where the text refers to demon possession, it refers to demon possession. Laying our contemporary Western concept of mental illness on top of the text is just that: a cultural misreading of the text.

  5. A correction (or, rather, clarification) to my last post: Instead of, “PTSD, perhaps, would be a good comparison”, a better and more accurate wording would have been, “PTSD, perhaps, is comparable to a broken leg as they are both a result of trauma and and could be considered an injury”.

    Now, as for spirituality…

    I was raised as a Christian, and adhered to that faith for the majority of my life, including during the onset of my mental illness and my long history with abuse and trauma. Yet, I was never devout: the faith never comforted me, there were too many conflicts, there were contradictions between my beliefs and ethics and that of the church’s, and I followed its theology out of fear (of Hell) more than genuine belief. I was bound to eventually leave it and, after quite some time of dabbling in a wide variety of religions and spiritual traditions, and a lot of linguistic and historical research, I now consider myself a Secular Humanist. Despite what most highly religious people would think, it has not had a negative impact on my mental health. If anything, I am much more relaxed, expressive and content.

    I read a study quite some time ago that produced results that supported the conclusion that, when a cancer patient’s doctor supports their spiritual beliefs, they fare better than those who had beliefs that they did not receive support in practicing. In my interpretation, this does not suggest that spirituality itself was significant; but that, if spiritual beliefs are there, it is important – vital, even – that practitioners help the patient find ways to express and engage them. I think the same applies with mental illness. If someone is devout, then they need support in finding an accepting church, and an accepting doctor (the grand majority of both psychiatrists and psychologists are atheists. Many are not entirely welcoming to religious beliefs). Churches need to step up, and follow what they preach. They need to educate themselves, educate other church-goers, reach out and offer support to those with mental illness (a Bible Study Group for those diagnosed, for example).


  6. ///If You Are Devoutly Religious, I Ask You Not Read This – And, If You Do, You Have Been Given This Warning\

    Religion and the supernatural does stir some interesting philosophical debates in terms of mental illness. Though many with psychosis are distressed by their delusions and hallucinations, what – really – is the difference between the person who is psychotic and the devoutly religious person? Both hold fixed beliefs that have no evidence supporting them; both claim to have direct experiences with and from things that a person sitting next to them does not hear/see/feel/etc; both have claimed to receive messages and signs from other, invisible beings; both feel driven and directed to do things by other powers (some of which can be risky – quitting a job, etc); ; both can experience fear and distress as result of their beliefs (fear of Hell, distress over natural thoughts/urges, spiritual crises, etc). There are studies that suggest a genetic link for psychotic disorders, and there are emerging studies that suggest certain genes help determine how religious someone will be. In New and Old Testament days, a person claiming to be receiving messages from God would have been considered a prophet.

    I do not say this to invalidate psychosis – I myself have Schizoaffective Disorder – but it is a significant point. What it considered ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional’ is socially and culturally based. What is delusional in one time and society is considered religious belief and experience in another. Obviously, when the psychosis come to a point it is dangerous to that person or another, it becomes disorder and illness.

    Thoughts to ponder….

  7. Erika, I agree 100% with your insight regarding whether spirituality is important to recovery. If spiritual beliefs have been an important part of one’s life prior to their illness and they are comforted by their belief then it can and should be an important aspect to their recovery.
    I think “Hope” is an essential part of recovery for both those with a mental illness as well as their family and friends. Without “Hope” families should just go back to locking up someone who is ill in the attic and try to forget about them…hope is what sustains us all. Hope for recovery and hope that a fulfilling life can be had for those who are ill.
    I too turned away from my Church for several years after my son first became ill. How could a loving God allow my son who was so kind and giving to suffer so tragically? I eventually returned to my beliefs and thank God often for the recovery my son has made. I do believe that it is the power of prayers of family and friends that has allowed my son to recover to a level we were told would never be possible. My family and friends were praying when I could not!
    I have come to believe that God wanted to show me the suffering of the mentally ill to motivate me to take action to help my son and others like him. Possibly even to strengthen by believe in Him. Erika I hope you don’t think this is the result of a devoutly religious person’s delusions! I didn’t hear voices telling me to help, I only felt moved by deep emotions. I don’t consider myself devoutly religious. I do believe the world was created by a higher power and the proof is in the beauty we see in the natural beauty that surrounds us, both in nature and love of others. If you live long enough you will see miracles that no one can explain where the only explaination can be the power of prayer.
    I guess I am fortunate in the fact that everyone I have chosen to share my son’s story with has been extremely supportive. My biggest struggles have been with the lack of mental health services for my son. I am so concerned for his future well being in the “system” that my current focus is to start a therapeutic farm community. If anyone would like to share links to resources I would be greatly appreciative!

    • Susan, I don’t think you’re delusional – it was just a bit of philosophical banter. Likely irrelevant to the topic. If faith helps you and your family, how – as someone who has suffered – could I ever discourage that? My reasons for leaving religion are complex and complex; but that was my choice. People need to do what helps them make it through.

      We are all in this together: consumers, families, professionals, everyone.


      • And, as I previously stated, the hallmark of any mental illness is that it, to some degree, impairs your functioning. Someone could meet every other symptom criteria of Schizophrenia; but, if they are social, functioning and happy, they are not technically Schizophrenic by DSM standards.

        Religion can be a great thing, and it needs to be supported. It’s just not for me.

        *complex and long

  8. My 31-year-old schizoaffective son relies on God for strength, comfort, love, peace and joy….all things I’ve seen take him through this ridiculous, debilitating illness. He’s way more personal than philosophy…God is real, consistently good and present when I can’t be there to help him. He and I couldn’t have survived this without Jesus.

    • Your son is more than philosophy. I agree.

      I respect your beliefs. I just hope you don’t think that they are vital to everyone’s recovery, nor are helpful to everyone. As an atheistic – a choice made after years of research – Schizoaffective, I have had religion pushed on me by numerous providers. It is offensive [to have them push it upon me].

      I am glad faith in a supreme being has helped you, and I hope you have found a treatment team that supports this in both you and your son. When religion is important to someone, it is important top treatment.


      • Actually I was referring to God as being way more personal than philosophy. I just wanted to share our experience as being very positive. I applaud your honest search for the truth.

        By the way, my son’s treatment team is primarily Muslim and exceptionally supportive. His previous psychiatrist was Jewish and also very supportive.

        • Ah, understood.

          That is good – that his team supportive. So many don’t have that experience.

          I applaud your faith, and your commitment to Your Truth.

          My psychiatrist is an atheist who was raised in Jewish faith; it works well.

  9. Just to note, in group therapy settings – and the word, really – I find it frustrating and unfair that the devoutly religious can proclaim their faith, how God is real, wonderful it is and such; yet, when the atheist proclaims lack of faith, how God isn’t real, how they think it is less than wonderful, and so forth, people claim said person is being rude or offensive. Huh? Me saying that isn’t real is no more offensive than saying he is. I have, however, seen the irreligious scolded by professionals as being angry, or presenting some symptom when they do. It’s wrong.

    The hospital – secular, private – claimed to have a “spiritual’ (vs religious) service – it was Christian.

    Just as religion is important to incorporate into treatment if said person is religious, it is important to keep it out of the atheist’s treatment.

  10. Kelly Horton says

    I was unable to attend your talk at Viterbo because my daughter, who is bipolar, just got out of JDC. My friend did attend, said it was wonderful and bought your book Crazy for me. I just finished it and it just made me realize that all the road blocks I have encountered with my juvenile daughter are the norm, unfortunately. I would love to talk to you and get some advice. We have nothing here to offer adolescent mentally ill patients other than outpt services and my insurance wont cover it even if we did. I would also like to talk to the police dept and judges and tell them the problems I have faced when I have tried to use them to help me with my daughter. It is so frustrating and scary when your child is sick and there really isnt much you can do to help other than just pray she makes it through this spell and has a good stretch. If there is anyway we could correspond that would be awesome bcuz I have a lot of questions!

  11. This is a highly sensitive area. The talk of faith, and religion combined with mental illnesses, welcomes areas of how science, health, healing and god join together to recovery. I believe that if there is faith, that thoughts are with hope for getting well. There are forms of forgiveness, within science, where I dont think one can be without the other. Remaining open to invite faith into science, or mental health is an advantage in many ways.

  12. Where is the scientific evidence of the genetics of mental illness.  There are no biological test for any so-called Psychiatric Illnesses and that includes Schizophrenia.  Brain Scans are not useful, and the mental illness diagnosis is subjective in the fact it is based more on opinion than fact.  When you talk about scientific evidence for illness of the mind, you are on shaky ground.