There has been a disturbing trend in spirituality and religion that needs to be addressed. That trend is the negation of mental health concerns among people who are affiliated with a religion or a spiritual tradition. This topic is close to my heart, because I am both a spiritual practitioner and work as a post-doctoral fellow within the field
of Clinical Psychology. What I have witnessed repeatedly among some spiritual people and religious people is that they will misinterpret serious mental health issues as being the result of one or more of the following: bad karma, negative energy, psychic vampires, the attachment of a malevolent being, demonic possession, a preordained “spiritual contract”, or “a lesson” meant to further spiritual enlightenment. What is worse is that instead of seeking psychotherapeutic intervention, these same individuals will resort to remedies that are inappropriate, irrelevant, and insufficient.
Why do some people who are affiliated with a religion or a spiritual tradition eschew mental health care, even when they have a mental health diagnosis? The answers vary. For some individuals, they may be afraid that their religious or spiritual beliefs may be pathologized. Furthermore, some people may believe that seeking psychotherapy and other forms of mental health treatment, will invalidate their faith or the power of divine intercession. Finally, given the emphasis on maintaining piety and moral rectitude in religion and positive energy in spirituality, a number of religious and spiritual people erroneously think that their sin and negativity are to blame for having a mental health diagnosis. So, in response they suppress their emotions, punish themselves for not being more holy or awakened, and pretend to be alright. This never truly heals the symptoms of poor mental health. Instead it can lead to shame, secrecy, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and the worsening of symptoms.
To be absolutely frank, I am fucking tired of seeing people struggle to function and find the will to live only to have their sacred communities ignore their deteriorating condition until it is too late. We deserve better than that and we can do better than that. And it starts by knowing what course of action to take. If you know or suspect someone in your religious or spiritual community (whether online or offline) is struggling to cope with a mental health issue, please validate their experience and let them know that they are not alone and they have support, as well as resources. Furthermore, talk to this person about seeking therapy from a qualified mental health professional in their area. If you do not know how to go about that search, you could start by helping them to look online for psychotherapists in their city or the surrounding area. You could also help them search for national or local counseling and psychological association websites, which usually contain directories for mental health professionals. You could help them ask their health insurance company (if they have coverage) what mental health professionals in the area take their insurance. Finally, you could help them ask their physician for a possible referral to a mental health professional. For more information about searching for qualified mental health professionals, please refer to these links from the American Psychological Association (https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/choose-therapist) and Kristin Wong from The Cut (https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/a-beginners-guide-to-finding-the-right-therapist.html). Please note that these articles are geared towards readers within the United States. Therefore, they may not cover pertinent details regarding mental health services in other countries.
Alternatively, if you know or suspect that someone in your religious or spiritual community (whether online or offline) is at imminent risk of suicidality or homicidality you can do the following: call your country’s emergency number (e.g., in the US you can call 911), call or go to the nearest emergency department, and contact your local/national suicide prevention number (e.g., in the US this includes the National Crisis Textline Number [i.e., text HOME to 741741] and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Number [1-800-273-8255]).
Lastly, if you suspect or know that anyone within your religious or spiritual community (whether online or offline) is being abused or neglected (particularly children, adolescents, older adults, and disabled individuals), you could do the following: call your country’s Child Protective Services or an equivalent, call your country’s Adult Protective Services or an equivalent, call your country’s emergency number, or call your local law enforcement agency.
For clarification, I am not casting aspersions against the enrichment, solace, and healing that can be found in religion and spirituality. What I am saying is that religion and spirituality cannot be the salves to heal all wounds. Just as one would not use prayer in lieu of surgery for a broken leg, one would not use the invocation of love and light to treat Bipolar I Disorder. You can hold on to your sacred practice and beliefs, while also seeking psychotherapeutic intervention. This is an ongoing conversation that does not begin and end with a single blog post. But, what I sincerely hope is that it will begin to empower religious/spiritual people with the awareness and motivation to do something more than send healing thoughts and prayers or be silent, when they can tell that someone is in a poor state of mental health.
Thank you to Mimi Bonhomme. Our conversations inspired this post. And thank you for reading.
Photo Credit: Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash