Ironically (or maybe not) enough, spirituality and mental health can often go hand-in-hand. When we reach emotional lows and struggle to find a reason to continue on this roller-coaster life, turning to faith and spirituality can be a powerful force in keeping us grounded. Having our focus shifted away from ourselves toward a higher purpose helps us gain a better perspective of how our personal obstacles might lead to greater clarity and strength.
Except, even as someone who considers herself both spiritual and mentally ill, I have not stepped foot into a church setting in quite a while, much longer than I’d care to admit. There are many aspects of what I’ve grown up knowing about church services and communities that weren’t my cup of tea. I don’t want to hear about any political or financial issues in my sermons, nor am I a fan of mindless greeting and handshaking (especially if I forgot the hand sanitizer).
Those reasons may sound very superficial, I know. And I would love to hunt for a church family that I really identify and feel comfortable with. However, I do think places of worship can be often overlooked as to how they acknowledge and treat mental illness. Understanding mental health from a spiritual perspective can be tricky, but boy is it necessary.
Especially when historically, mental illness was met with claims of satanic influence, treatment involving exorcisms and church mediation. Demons are the ones clouding our judgment and changing our emotions to “become completely different people.” Unholy. Tainted. Sinful, surely.
Opening up about mental illness doesn’t feel like an ideal conversation starter in many cases, and Bible studies and Sunday services are no exception. Stepping into a confession booth with a priest isn’t an ideal form of therapy. But churchgoers and workers must realize that with the prevalence of mental illness among the population, we are always crossing paths with those waging wars we’ll never see. Just as many congregations have lists of people to pray for in times of need, why not include mental illness on that list?
Because the stigma surrounding mental illness has subsided unevenly. Certain settings are more accepting than others. For so many, their spirituality is an important aspect to their life that should complement their daily thoughts and actions, not clash with it, leading to guilt and doubt. To me, that’s not the point of having faith and believing in a higher purpose. People should not feel driven to pray and worship as a means to right all of their wrongs and feel like they are forced to do so. We should be called to faith however it speaks to us individually, that it may inspire hope and instill stability.
Many people question spirituality, especially when tragedy and violence constantly strike the world. Why would a loving, good God allow these bad things to happen to us? Why do we lose loved ones and face difficult tribulations if we’re doing all we can? Why would God have so many people live each day with handicapping mental illness in the first place?
Call me naive, but I truly believe that our struggles are just part of the game that is life. They are unavoidable, and the purpose of faith is not to solve every little problem as we see fit. We’re ultimately not the ones in control, after all. We face obstacles because we can handle them. They shape us into stronger people who can better embody their truest forms.
There’s that one saying about how there are three answers to our prayers: yes, not yet, and I have something better. We cannot expect our hardships to make sense in the thick of their influence. However, believing in the beauty right around the corner keeps us going. Realizing how beautiful life already is despite the inevitable hardships keeps us going, too. Our perception of the situation can turn an awful experience into an opportunity for learning and growth, a greater awareness of God’s complexities and spirit within humanity.
So that’s where I stand with spiritual followers. But spiritual leaders must also emphasize this lesson. We should have to sit silently in our guilt and shame, fearful of the answer we might receive. Churches must be welcoming communities exuding the compassion required to accept each others’ challenges and remind us of our roots. Remind us that mental illness is not a sin, but a test of our will and faith. That we do not become mentally ill from our sinful natures, but from genetics and our circumstances. That we cannot pray away our problems, but we must face them and treat them accordingly. That the resources are out there, resources provided to us through God’s creation and knowledge to take care of our spirits and bodily temples.
We cannot turn a blind eye to mental illness in any setting. The church is often seen as an outdated place, one that is slow to progress with the rest of society. I see mental illness as no exception to this. Obviously it depends on the church and denomination and religion, but if we want to attract people back to these spiritual congregations (since battles are much more manageable with an army backing you up), we have to educate ourselves. We must face what might be uncomfortable but very necessary.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie