Sunday, July 14, 2013
We humans have been blessed and cursed with our ideas of deity for millennia. In some respect, despite all the technology we now have that has helped us lengthen human life expectancy, eliminate previously common disease and make transport across the planet a virtual convenience (among other things) we seem to be as backwards as ever on matters of religion. One need only look at the new polarization (if you indeed want to and believe in duality) between Christianity and Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001 to wonder what progress we have ultimately made in the last many centuries regarding religious tolerance.
I broach the subject of religion in my writing today because its influence truly is ubiquitous. Religious belief informs how we dress, what we eat, whom we associate with, how we fashion our priorities, how we vote and how we make sense of our inevitable deaths. It isn’t possible to escape the influence of religion even if we wanted to. Atheists share the world with many people whose non-atheist views affect, confound and sometimes upset them.
I’ve been reflecting on the interrelationship between religious belief and mental illness since the recent turn of events in my own life that led me to enter some intensive therapy. It is my opinion that we do a grave disservice to ourselves and others when we address the issue of mental health with an overly narrow perspective. It has been my observation that the “spiritualization of mental illness” still goes on. And I believe the United States as a nation is unfortunately one place where this happens quite a bit. I don’t intend to use this forum today to articulate what I believe are the roots of this phenomenon in my own country of citizenship. I believe the roots are many, complex and could fill an entire book. Instead I simply wish to speak a bit about my own experience.
So what do I mean by the “spiritualization of mental illness”? I define this as what people do when they take an exclusively religious or spiritual approach to the identification and treatment of mental illness. Please understand I do not intend to imply that religion and spirituality should necessarily be understood or used so interchangeably. I have many friends who are deeply spiritual but have not attended a formal worship service in years. And there are many deeply religious people in the United States who are perhaps some of the most venomous people you could ever meet. A belief in a deity (expressed with humility or rancor) does not necessarily guarantee a person will be compassionate or kind.
I had an experience of the spiritualization of mental illness earlier in my life when I experienced a major depressive episode as a young man partly in response to my coming to terms with my identity as a gay man. Given the time in which I came out (1997) I would say I actually came out fairly early considering the level of tolerance that existed in America in 1997. At that time television programs depicting major characters who happened to gay were still something of a novel idea. The acceptance of gay marriage by a majority of the US population was still more than a decade away.
I was a member of a prominent Catholic religious order at the time. Yes, I was on a very different life track at the time. Perhaps I will share more details at a different time here on my blog. My experience of organized religion and my subsequent explorations of a number of other traditions including Buddhism and Islam have given me the life experience upon which I believe I can offer some accurate insights.
I had become depressed as I began to realize the identity I had been presenting as a heterosexual man was a front and therefore not an accurate representation of who I fundamentally am. As the year neared its end my depression consumed me. In a spiritual direction session my superior expressed his opinion that I should depart the order. My own thinking process was so clouded that I was not sure what was the best choice. Luckily for me one of my novitiate colleagues (a medical doctor trained in psychiatry) intervened on my behalf and firmly communicated his opinion to our superior. The interjection of his opinion made all the difference. I was eventually directed to treatment and improved in the coming months.
Looking back with clear hindsight it is obvious that one of the issues at play in my particular situation was indeed this spiritualization of mental illness. My depression was originally being construed almost exclusively as a spiritual problem that could thus be resolved with a spiritual solution. Yet had a more holistic approach not been taken I doubt my recovery would have occurred in the way it did. Due to this experience, and many others I have had in the years since then, I have become a firm believer in assessing problems with the most holistic perspective possible.
I can cite my paternal family of origin as yet another example of the fallacy of spiritualizing mental illness…and the dangers that can result when one does this. It has long been my opinion that my own father has never sought out proper treatment for his own mental health due in part to his own upbringing and beliefs in which the Catholic idea of deity (Jesus, God the Father, etc) exerts a deep influence on his view of the world. I endured many needlessly painful moments in my childhood due in large part to my father’s poor decisions. I have only alluded to some of those choices in earlier postings on this blog. His second marriage ended when my stepmother attempted to murder him…repeatedly. Yes, you read that correctly. Based on what I know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a person will very, very likely develop this condition if another person attempts to murder him (or her). Surviving a near death experience in which another person deliberately attempts to kill you has to be one of the most traumatic experiences you can have. In my opinion the pain of such an ordeal can only be exceeded by events in which large numbers of people die such as what happens in war.
I personally do not believe that you can successfully treat PTSD through prayer and “spiritual” methods alone. I believe a more holistic approach is warranted. In speaking to other members of my father’s family in an effort to better understand my own father I have long had the impression that their perspective is unduly distorted by their Catholic faith. It is as if they cannot see a world without seeing it through the lens of religion. Human health somehow thus becomes the province of religion; the cure for illness thus becomes a spiritual matter that perhaps necessitates the assistance of a priest.
One can read of extreme examples in which personal and collective faith so influences the decision making processes of individuals that they make choices that would leave others questioning their sanity. Google the topic and you will find countless sad stories. Here is the link to but one such story.
When parents refuse medical treatment for their children for religious reasons the question inevitably must arise: Whose needs are being met by this choice? Is the child’s welfare being served?
I believe an ideal society is one in which church and state can co-exist without one attempting to usurp the power of the other. Such a delicate balance is indeed a challenge to maintain. And yet the implications of what may happen when there is no such balance are indeed all too horrifying to contemplate. Such is also true on the level of families and individuals. When we insist that only our view is correct we risk reducing the world to a narcissistic projection of our own personalities. And how is that freedom? How does seeing the world in such a narrow way serve you or anyone else for that matter? I would argue it doesn’t. The pain we cause ourselves and others when we live according to a narrow mindset is needless pain.
We can create a better world.