When we feel depressed, anxious, or distressed, are we mentally ill? Or are we spiritually confused?

Not long ago, I railed against the mental “illness” concept (see The Death of Mental Illness). While it can’t be denied that people have problems in the mental sphere, I object to the widespread assumption that they suffer from organic diseases. Yes, symptoms sometimes diminish with pharmaceutical treatment, but that doesn’t prove they are caused by faulty neurons.

But if we abandon the “brain dysfunction” formula, what do we replace it with?

It’s tempting to call depression, anxiety, mania, and other psychiatric symptoms spiritual maladies. Unfortunately, many people in our culture object to the language of mysticism and prefer the supposedly verifiable terminology of science. And yet, there does seem to be an aspect of soul-sickness in the conditions we label as mental illnesses.

For instance, the depressed person loses hope and sees the world as a hostile, lonely, and pointless wasteland. A spiritual viewpoint would recognize that despite the hardship in every life, interdependence and shared consciousness make us each an important actor in the vast human drama. The anxious person lives in fear of loss, humiliation, and loneliness. A higher understanding would embrace transience, unpredictability, and fragility as the roots of life’s essential power and grace.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has long stressed the importance of meaning to mental well being. By fostering a sense of purpose, and finding lessons in our ordeals, we can endure stresses that would feel overwhelming if borne in isolation and unframed by wisdom.

It seems clear that the various mystical traditions offer solutions to depression and anxiety. If we go on to consider states of high mania, we recognize that the spiritually mature person would avoid many of their pitfalls. Grandiosity would be held in check by deep humility; impulsiveness would be countered by practiced forbearance; sexual misconduct would be eschewed out of desire to avoid harming others.

Furthermore, shamanic rituals and other mystical paths historically provided empowering interpretations of the sorts of mental intrusions that nowadays get labelled as hallucinations and delusions.

Organized religion has done the world an enormous disservice by equating spiritual practice with dogmatism and intolerance. Much of the reflexive atheism that discredits the word mysticism arose in reaction to the harm institutionalized faiths have done throughout history and into the present day.

We need to recover the high ground for the spiritual path. We can’t let atheists define it as infantile or fundamentalists confine it to fixed beliefs. We need to combine ancient wisdom with modern knowledge and devise mental health treatments that transform humans rather than suppress symptoms. The importance of this task cannot be overstated. As long as we seek mental health in pills and thought hygiene alone, we will be denied the profound clarity and peace of mind available through soulful engagement with the eternal sweep of reality.

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