“Spiritualising” mental illness


“Isn’t mental illness largely a spiritual thing?”

I’m asked that often. Sometimes it’s more pointed: “How do you reconcile your faith with your practice?” One or two people have even gone so far as to insist (tactlessly, but perhaps understandably) that I could not possibly believe in what I do as a mental health service provider!

An explanation is obviously in order.

Broadly, there are two reasons for assuming the cause of a thing to be “spiritual”: either natural causes don’t explain it enough, or natural solutions don’t work. To many, both reasons apply to mental disorders. Ergo, they must be “spiritual”. But this thinking is gravely flawed, in both its basic premise and underlying assumption.

First, the premise. It’s simply not true that natural causes don’t suffice and natural solutions don’t work. An increased understanding of mental illness has helped us to better explain it via natural factors: genetics, upbringing, personality, life experiences (especially misfortune), physical problems or disease and so on. And on the whole, drugs and other natural treatments produce remarkable results.

As for the implicit assumption, in the common perception of mental illness, that everything results from either natural or spiritual causes, that too is wrong. It’s not an “either-or” thing, but “both-and”: both natural and spiritual causes simultaneously, not one or the other. And unless I’m grossly mistaken, that’s what Christianity (to which I adhere) insists on. (I don’t think other religious people would disagree.) Either everything has a spiritual dimension to it, or nothing does.

Viewed this way, then, spiritual and physical explanations, instead of being opposing and mutually exclusive, are simply two different, but complementary and equally valid perspectives on the same phenomena.

And the implications? Well, for one, schizophrenia and depression are no more spiritual than malaria and headaches. (If that still sounds preposterous, do you now see why?) And a psychiatrist has no more need for “protection” than any GP. It also means that an explanation from one angle doesn’t in any way nullify a complementary explanation from the other.

So where (as in most cases, I imagine) an illness is due to some germ or other environmental cause (known or unknown), the spiritual element may simply be considered to be acting indirectly via the physical medium. You have a headache? Take paracetamol. Or pray. Or both. Your choice, depending on how you see it.

What about direct spiritual causation, such as a demon jumping on someone to produce an unnatural fever? This view allows for this too, but I don’t think direct is the norm. And I’d put my money on the person having gone dabbling in some weighty spiritual matter. Even then, I wouldn’t totally rule out a possible natural angle. Take the records of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead (as spiritual as it could get), and immediately instructing that she be given food: the supernatural miracle would yet require natural sustenance.

If all this seems merely academic, rest assured that the damage done to the mentally disordered by people of faith is very real. While much of that damage is probably rooted in our frequent failure to practise what we preach, I think some of it is also the result of an unfortunate inability to reconcile faith with science. It is to address the latter that I have written.

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