From My Files: How Important Is Spirituality?

I first posted this blog in April 2011 after being asked about spirituality and mental health. Since it was posted, I have learned that several National Alliance on Mental Illness chapters have reached out to religious organizations to promote local educational and recovery programs or have helped spawn groups that address the spiritual needs of persons with mental disorders.

A weekend conference in Boulder, Colorado, led to the creation of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.   After Gunnar Christiansen’s son developed a mental illness in college, Gunnar got involved in the NAMI chapter in Orange County, California. A member of the Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, Gunnar asked why NAMI wasn’t reaching out to religious groups. That question eventually led to the creation of NAMI Faith.Net, an organization that links mental health advocates with religious groups.

What’s happening in your community when it comes to mental health and religious organizations? Is there a tie between spirituality and recovery? Is this an issue that your local minister should address?

From my files: Spirituality, Mental Illness, and Recovery

My father is a retired protestant minister and I grew up attending church…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.


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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. I have noticed also how religious orrganizations shy away from mental health issues.
    Mental illness, like despair, joy, enlightenment, and other states of mind/heart are inseperable from the spirit, or spiritual matters. Even the athiest and agnostic have spirit, and so regardless of religious affilliation, are spiritual beings as we all are.
    Mental illness involves the spirit, as does cancer, heart disease or a child’s boo-boo.Spirit or spirituality is the unseen but known active prescence of the life force
    within all living things. It can be complicated to understand, or purely accepted as fact.
    Studies done on highly enlightened, disciplined monks have been done, that show remarkable brain activity and chemical changes in their brains. Google neuro-theology to learn more of the on-going studies in this science.( I have concluded with a list of 3 books – see below.)
    It is fact that our brains respond visibly to our conscious and unconscious thoughts. for instance, the brain of a positive-thinking person looks differently
    than that of a depressed negative person.
    The good news is that we can alter the pathways of our neuro-transmitters by
    changing our thoughts consistently.!
    With mental illness, so much is awry in the brains inner transmitting proccesses,
    so that cognitive thinking and outward judgement is impaired.
    It is our spirit that gives us hope, and our natural instinct to survive, that we share with the animal kingdom.
    Spirit is basically energy; spirituality, whether tied to a religion or not, is what gets us up in the morning, motivates us to work and create, and affords us the natural desire to love. socialize, and reproduce.
    chemically or strategically. Neural pathways are looking like a maze of overlapping roadawys. The human spirit, which by nature, is positive, ordered, creative and inclusively intelligent, is over-run by the biology of thought processes gone AWOL, so to speak. The result is severe confusion in the brain organ itself,, leading to a whole host of different presentations of various mental illnesses.
    SPIRITUALITY IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT IN THE PREVENTION AND RECOVERY OF MENTAL ILLS. With localized diseases such as pneumonia and cancer, the human spirit is not totally attacked. But because the human spirit works conjointly with neural tissue, spirituality takes a huge hit when mental illness invades the system.
    ANSWER?  We need churches, etc, to get on board, starting w/ education. Perhaps after educating themselves, the ministers, priests, rabbis and all
    will lend themselves to be spiritual healers. We can treat the body w/ meds,
    and give out clothes, food, and busy-work programs. If the spirit is not healed, then all efforts are in vain. currently we have ‘zombies’ on meds, w/ out a clue
    how to re-gain their selves, to live healthy and full lives.
         Consider that never has a spiritually-minded, well-rounded person, regardless of genetics or age,  been diagnosed w/ a mental illness. It just doesn’t happen.
    Many people w/ genetic predispositions never become ill. For the sake of prevention, it would be good to draw them out.
    Yes, spirituality has always been the key to mental wellness, and for some is all they need.Most of us,w/ mental illnesses, need meds and other treatments to initiallly smooth the neural pathways.
         Thanks for bringing this up, Pete. Without my own personal attention to spiritual matters, I don’t think I’d be here today.
    Books to reference –
        ‘The Biology of Belief”, Bruce Lipton
        ‘Kundalini Rising’, Khalsa; Newberg;Rhada; Wilber; Selby 
         ‘The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion’, Jawer; Micozzi,M.M.,Ph.D.”.        

  2. I wouldn’t have gotten through my brother’s 8 psychotic breakdowns in the last 20 years without holding on to my spiritual belief system. I’m not particularly “religious” in terms of following Christian traditions, going to church…  But I believe that the power of prayer is the power of pure love, a pure directed energy that heals. I remember stopping outside of a church and just sitting alone in the grotto absolutely “bottomed out” — lost, broken, alone, hopeless, foresaken. My father was in one hospital dying of terminal cancer while at the same time, my brother was in another hospital with his 4th psychotic breakdown (schizophrenia) and my mother and I were just shuttling back and forth between the hospitals, just trying to hang on, hold it together.

     And sitting there in that peaceful grotto, I thought, “This is it…God, I can’t get through this…I can’t go on…”  I just asked one question, over and over:  “How?” … “How am I going to get through this, God?”  The pain of losing both my father and my brother at the same time was just too much.  And yet, through the Spiritual lessons I’d learned, I had to believe that when all else fails, love survives.  That spirituality teaches us: “With love, all things are possible.”  The love I had for both of these souls would get us through. That love builds bridges where there are none. But I was at a point where I just desperately wanted to run away from it all.  Just keep running until I couldn’t run anymore…  But in that grotto, Spirit reminded me that love isn’t just a word written at the bottom of a birthday card.  It isn’t just a word we utter from time to time…  Love is the infinite pure power, infinite living energy that re-inflates your soul, that breathes life back into you…. when you can’t breathe.  My spiritual teachings whispered to me:  “There but for the grace of god… go I….”  A father dying. A brother losing his mind. How could I run away when my father needed me the most? How could I let go of my brother’s hand when he needed me the most?

    I believe that a man called Jesus once walked the Earth and that his greatest teaching is what pushed the air back into my lungs and the life force back into my legs, to keep walking on…  “Love one another….”  I survived through the power of love’s healing energy.  

  3. When I used to edit a mental illness newsletter, this was the most commented on article. It is titled “How to separate Demonic Possession from Schizophrenia”. A funadmentalist preacher with a seriously ill relative wrote it. His point was that some people believe in demonic possession, and rather than looking down our noses at them, we should try to see how we can help.

  4. I will never forget the day that my son’s life was turned upside down because of his diagnosis….then it was schizophrenia, (now it is major depression with psychotic features). He was in 10th grade and decided hat he was NOT going back after the spring break. We had NO clue as to what had happened. Up until months before he dropped out, he was an A student and involved in every aspect of life. Just before he dropped out his grades plummeted, he became withdrawn and life turned black for him and everyone associated. Being our one and only child, we had nothing to compare his behavior to. When he threatened suicide and we found a notebook full of words that were written in a slant down each page. The words formed ideas that were a mix of violence, religion and poetry. We could see that he needed help right away.
    As a tenth grader my wife and I were planning a future for him that included scholarships and colleges. All of that was not to be. Our first goal was to secure the kind of help that my son needed. Administrators at the school called us in because they thought my son was doing drugs. His behavior was bizarre, I agree, but when I asked the principal at the high school why his conclusion was something like drugs, he didn’t have a response. I said, “Why wouldn’t you send him to the nurse thinking it was a physical problem?”. Why would the principal tarnish a student’s reputation by claiming that he was on drugs without any proof whatsoever! The answer is, just plain ignorance! This was the onset of my son’s downward spiral into a hell called mental illness.
    I remember walking hand in hand with my wife as my son was institutionalized for the first time. She was SO devastated and inconsolable. This triggered an anxiety condition for her, and I was SO SCARED! I thought that I was going to lose both of the people who I cared most about in this world to mental illness.
    I went to work like a zombie and just went through the motions of my job as a teacher. I couldn’t engage with my students because I felt so lost and looking for answers.
    I had a good friend who was a recovering alcoholic. She worked as a counselor. I asked her how she managed to get through each day. I shared with her about my situation at home and she offers me the best advice. It is one that is offered in any 12 step meeting. It is, “One day at a time.”. She also shared her story as an alcoholic and drug abuser. Her daughter was murdered by an abusive spouse.
    It was around this time of the year, and she offered me an angel ornament that she put up every on her Christmas tree. It was an antique that she had collected. From that time on I have angels everywhere in my home. I used her story and advice to renew my life. Sure my life was broken, but not worthless. My newly found faith in angels guided me through those dark days. You see, I have always been a very spiritual person. I don’t belong to any one church because they are all so political. Besides I have always felt that GOD is so immense that he couldn’t possibly be contained in any building.
    I believe that we meet angels everyday in ordinary circumstances. They are like guideposts that help us when we are looking for direction. They will NEVER take the place of GOD, but HE made them for a reason. Today, I walk in harmony with most circumstances in my life because I KNOW that I’m never alone.
    My son has come to terms with his illness and I will never forget what he declared from the pulpit during the National Day Of Prayer (Mental Illness Awareness Week). He said, “I am blessed to have this mental illness because it has made me what I am today. It has given me hardship, but I have survived a better, stronger man.”. I had tears in my eyes then and now just thinking about it, but I was then, and am now SO proud of this remarkable young man. He has a hard journey ahead of himself, but I am confident that he will find his way in this world.

    • In reference to the principal’s remarks –
      people are generally more attuned to drug use behaviors
      than signs and symptoms of M.!.  
      if your son was on drugs, the very very good news would be of his liklihood for full recovery.
      I’m not sure how ‘drug use’ would “tarnish” one’s reputation any more than
      a mental illness would, considering the horrible pervasive stigma toward
      the mentally ill and drug addicted, alike. Often, the mentally ill self-medicate and become drug users.
      Stigma affects the mentally ill in the same way it affects alcoholics and
      drug users. These three human conditions all affect thinking processes and behavior.
      I wish that 41 years and 4 months ago that someone had slipped me illicit drugs. My parents were praying for that, and the doctors were hoping. But the blood tests taken at the best private hospital in the state showed differently. And I was damned, or blessed, with a mental illness and a doomsday prognosis, as it was years before a treament was developed
      Reputation goes out the window when word spreads that you’re incurably crazy, so I might as well have been on drugs!.
             Must we differentiate between types of psychiatric issues whether they surface as drug dependancy or psychotic illnesses? None should be stigmatized, made ashamed, or more validated than the other.
             There must be angels, because we need them. I suppose until every soul on the planet gives in to love, they will keep encircling us. Until someday we get it right.

  5. KristenKringle says

    I think the issue of spirituality is an important one.  It’s tricky because i have heard (not sure if it’s true) that a lot of psychiatrists are atheist so I have worried that if I mention anything of a spiritual nature that it would be assumed to be religiousity and part of mental illness, when it’s not.  So, I don’t really talk about spirituality with my psychiatrist.

    I have some suspicions that my psychiatrist is Buddhist based on some of the things he says and how he behaves. Even though I’m not Buddhist I kind of like that he may be.  He certainly has a lot the traits, non-judgmental, very calm, and very compassionate.

    I do talk about spirtuality with my therapist, though.  We have a lot of the same spiritual beliefs, and it’s comforting to know that we’re on the same page. 

    I agree with you that hope is essential.  I have mental health professionals, now, who agree with that philosophy.   unfortunately I have also had some in the past who were quite depressing and kept telling me I would always be sick.  The earlier ones were wrong.

    • KristenKringle says

      My last post didn’t come out the way I intended.  I have no problem with anyone who is atheist, I have friends who are atheist.  So, if it came across that I have an issue with that, I really don’t.

    • What you shared, Kristen, is very important. More key than even medication and diagnosis, is the firm belief of a patient that there is hope for a full recovery.Sometimes it is the choice of words.
            The criminal injustice of it is that as long as the mentally ill are inadequately helped by the mental health system, by not giving them hope and practicing other more sublimenal tactics of negatavism, many will remain ill, and some will disparage low enough to become criminals.
             Its not rocket science, nowadays to treat a person beyond a serious mental illness. Money and greed is why its not happening. There are boosts to the economy in creating superflous jobs to ‘manage’ mentally ill people who with appropriate treatment, could learn to manage themselves.  By not offering hope, therapists ensure that patients will be convinced of lies – that they can never be well and independant –
      This accepted professional protocol along with the greed of the pharmaceutical industry to profit from drug sales, coupled with the deliberate lack of funding to research cures, keeps many employed,
      if not extremely wealthy. If there was a cure developed, just like with cancer, the money machine would break, just like St.Jude’s would be out of businesss w/ out cancer.
               Feelings of hopelessness are embedded in every mental illness.
      If family or friends re-inforce this hopelessness, it is tough. But when doctors,& therapists pronounce a person hopeless they are no longer
      fit to be therapists. They become murderers of the human spirit.
                  This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the coalition that is forming to take a nationwide stand for better mental health care.