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Pills for the Brain or Respect for the Soul?

In ancient times, spiritual vitality and mental health were considered identical. People did not conceive of a mind separate from the soul.

The kinds of behavior that now get referred to psychiatric wards were considered evidence of spiritual illness or demonic possession. When this system of belief functioned at its healthiest, the deeper value of the person was not questioned; it was instead assumed that mystical torment obscured a sufferer’s brighter lights.

However, in some case inflexible religious attitudes probably stigmatized many people that our society would try to view more compassionately. When such cases are considered, labeling someone ‘psychiatrically ill’ may seem preferable to declaring him or her to be in the clutch of demons.

On the other hand, the elevated states of consciousness that have informed saints and prophets throughout recorded history are now considered delusional, hallucinatory, and insane. So whereas traditional societies would honor those capable of expanded consciousness, conventional psychiatry has defined spiritual ecstasy as a disease.

Although our current philosophies of mind help us view those in chaotic states a bit more kindly, they undermine the sorts of spiritual realization that from time immemorial have rescued people from lives of torment.

While we don’t want to return to blaming mental distress on evil forces, we need to recognize the soul as a participant in mental health. We need to regain a sacred view of mental life in a way that demands compassion toward those in the grip of chaos. And we want to encourage mystical realization, not squelch it.

Modern psychology severed the connection between mind and soul because it rests on a materialist and supposedly scientific foundation that dismisses spiritual leanings as irrational and immature. This bias against mystical beliefs has led to a theory of humanity that embraces only solid, physical reality, and views the mind as a byproduct of molecular events in the brain. Sacredness has no place in such a model.

If the materialist picture of the mind were sufficient, we might see people responding better to medications. Unfortunately, patients commonly experience only transient improvement after starting antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs. Why? Because pharmaceuticals do little to affect the deeper self. Medications (sometimes) alter mood temperature, but they don’t increase our sense of purpose, or our ability to find meaning, or our maturity.

Better results obtain from treating the whole person and addressing the material, mental, and spiritual spheres. Western psychiatry and psychology provide medications for the material underpinnings of emotion and cognitive therapies for disordered thoughts of mind. However, they seldom address the soul or deeper self.

Many theorists from Freud onward promoted the view that only the ignorant and simple-minded resort to spiritual practice. They failed to understand the distinction between mature commitment to higher purpose and infantile belief in primitive mythology.

Fortunately, as I’ve said before, one can pursue spiritual growth without abandoning reason. All it takes is a willingness to believe life matters. We need to see ourselves as important agents in a world where right action is better than wrong, and where living beings deserve respect. We need to look for lessons in life and value the growth that comes from transcending problems. We must foster our better ethics and reject our culture’s acceptance of greed and selfishness as proper behavior.

Working toward these goals often leads one to humbly admit ignorance about the ultimate nature of reality. Rock-solid beliefs of less evolved states fall away and get replaced by awe and open-minded awareness. This is a common experience of those on paths toward profound mental wellness.

We need to question whether a psychiatric theory that rejects notions of soul and higher consciousness is truly healthy. Can a system based on a rigidly materialist view of the mind be called one of ‘mental health?’ Can a treatment model that denies humanistic elements that have felt central to people for eons be trusted to heal?

Luckily, the new paradigm I’ve applauded takes a broader and wiser view. Those moving toward this new system of psychiatric treatment know that soul must be recognized as a vital player in human life and encouraged accordingly. They see that labeling mental distress as a brain disease dehumanizes us all. They understand that drugs only mask pain; they seldom resolve it.

All humans require respect, compassion, and encouragement. These soul-values, and not drugs, must form the axis around which any system of true mental health revolves.

Pills for the Brain or Respect for the Soul?

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2011). Pills for the Brain or Respect for the Soul?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 3 Jun 2011
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