Spirituality and Mental Illness


I grew up with a mother who suffered with mental illness, which along with her alcoholism dominated the years of my childhood and youth. I devoted a chapter in my first book, Divine Nobodies, in which I shared about my own struggle with depression and how my “Christian” culture did more harm than good. I also devoted a section in Notes from (Over) the Edge exploring spirituality and depression. The topic of spirituality and mental illness comes up a lot. Here are a few thoughts related to it.

Whatever the condition of one’s mind or body, our true Self is born out of the image, likeness and being of God. We have a mind and body but we are not our mind and body. The image, likeness and being of God is the underlying, unchanging and fundamental essence of who we are. Our true Self is never threatened or diminished, and is permanent and absolute, lacking nothing.

That Self takes on a mind and body in order to be human. Unlike our true and absolute Self, the human mind and body is temporary, subject to deterioration and decline, and its state of condition is a byproduct of each person’s life experiences, conditions and circumstances – some of which are in our control, many of which are not.

There are many causes and contributing factors to all kinds of mental illness, ranging from depression, to Bipolar disorder, to Schizophrenia. But whatever the mental illness may be and the factors that led to it, the true self remains unchanged. Then true self is complete and whole unto itself – nothing can improve it, nothing can diminish it. Every person with mental illness has the same and equal inherent divine worth as any other human being. Every person with mental illness is as complete and whole in their real Self as any other human being.

Our relationship with or to whatever we have in our lives is our spiritual path.

Stop right now and identify about what you have in your life. Maybe you have depression. Maybe you have Bipolar disorder. Perhaps you have an anxiety disorder, personality disorder, eating disorder, or panic disorder. You didn’t choose this disorder or mental illness, and you can’t just will it away with a magic wand or bright side it away with positive thinking. Trying harder, or praying harder, or ________ (fill in the blank) harder isn’t it either. So, consider the possibility that your relationship to what you have is your spiritual path. Your relationship to your depression, Bipolar disorder, or any form of mental illness… is your spiritual path.

For example, let’s say you have depression. Your relationship with or to your depression might include:

  • Creating a space of acceptance in your life for your depression.
  • Including friends, loved ones and significant others in the creation of that space so they can participate and support you in it.
  • Those times when you are experiencing depression.
  • Those times of reprieve from depression.
  • Those things you do to manage your depression, including medication, treatment programs, lifestyle/self-care choices – likely a combination of multiple things.
  • Expressing understanding, support, and compassion for others who struggle with depression.
  • Allowing others to be that for you.

Topics like depression and Bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness did not often come up in the Christian sub-culture that I was once a part of. I wonder how many people suffered in silence and shame as a result. There are a lot of layers related to mental illness, and I think a good rule of thumb for any person who has not had to deal with mental illness is to: (1) Do some good study and research to gain more competent understanding; and (2) Allow those with mental illness to share what the experience or reality is like for them without the threat of judgment or fixing it.

To learn more about mental illness, explore the website for the National Alliance for Mental Illness

Or The National Institute of Mental Health

Some memoirs of those who have struggles with mental illness include:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family from Generations of Mental Illness, by Tom Davis

Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, by Pete Earley

Latest Comments

  1. Mary Mergos says:

    GREAT description of what we really are. I had a schizophrenic mom and bipolar husband. Will be writing a book about it. After 65 years I have survived and done battle with this “leviathan” and …I have to say, I won. Though I considered myself beaten many times, the victory was God’s and mine in the end…BECAUSE… as you say, a man is not his body and mind, but his heart. If only the world knew this. Inside these people with raging symptoms lives a person created by God. There is always a person inside and hidden behind the body and mind that does not function.

    I heard a friend mourn for her depressed brother who committed suicide. I told her that God does not send a person to hell because he/she has a broken pancreas or liver. In the same way, He does not send one to hell because of a broken brain. (Nancy Andreson in her book, The Broken Brain, explains the separate entities of mind and brain.)

    It is crucial we understand that we are a trinity. That the enemy wages war against body soul and spirit. But God is sovereign and holds our hearts/ our real self, in His hand.

  2. Susan Schiller says:

    Just this past afternoon I picked up your book, “Divine Nobodies” and began to read… the 2 intro’s and the 1st chapter is where I’ve gotten to so far, and I’m excited to read through the rest!

    I’m about 4-years outside of church, still in recovery… what I really liked about your intro was that you shared about your first book almost being fiction, and yet it’s a memoir. That’s exactly where I’m at…

    I recently began following you on Facebook and your updates have greatly encouraged me – thank you!

  3. Debbie says:

    Wyes we do not talk of struggles in the church and we should because we gain strength and comfort and sometimes direction. My son struggles with schizoaffective disorder and our church has been very helpful and supportive 🙂

  4. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this post.

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