Recently my cousin wrote a brave letter to her local newspaper in response to two suicides that affected her children. Her message picked up a lot of attention because it addresses mental health issues with great open-heartedness and honesty. I felt moved to comment on her website, where she also posted the letter. Because my response looks at mental illness from the perspective I now consider most important, I am posting a slightly modified version of it here. I encourage readers to visit my cousin’s site (Rock, Paper, Write) to read the piece that led me to write what I’ve published below.
It seems clear your post makes reference to me in its first paragraph, since I am both your cousin and someone who has attempted suicide. Although I am sorry to have added to your burden of exposure to such a frightening and tragic fact of modern life, I am happy to know that you care enough to feel affected by my story. One of the lies depression tells the sufferer is that he or she is not loved. It is nice to be reminded that I am.
I no longer suffer much from my former mental health issues. I have occasional dark periods that can be quite intense, but they are rare enough and brief enough that they don’t leave much lingering effect on me or those around me. Although there are many things I could say here in response to your beautiful essay, I want to concentrate on what it took for me to overcome my psychiatric conditions. We all wish that everyone who suffers with such problems could transcend them. How can it be done?
In my opinion, true healing demands spiritual growth. Such maturation derives from two key practices: meditation and devotion. Both are very helpful to those with psychiatric problems, but many people can improve a great deal by pursuing just one or the other.
Beginning meditation instruction (these days, most commonly focusing on mindfulness) often calms the psyche rather quickly. As one meditates over time, the practice fosters acceptance, so that outer life circumstances and inner mental states no longer cause such painful resistance and suffering (there may be brief episodes during this stage when psychic pain actually intensifies, due to more capacity to allow emergence of deeply buried conflicts). As meditative skills deepen, one feels begins to feel profoundly connected with other people, and indeed all living beings. Calm, acceptance, and feelings of connectedness all go a long way toward healing depression and other psychiatric afflictions. There are now mindfulness-based mental health interventions, such as DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) that can help those suffering from psychiatric disorders learn mindfulness techniques in safe, measured ways.
Devotional practices, by which I mean the best features of the theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, help in a different way. They encourage the sufferer to locate that energy within the heart that feels mysterious, eternal, and loving. They remind us that the entire world operates with this deep, creative principle at its core. Whether we call this quality Yaweh, Christ, Allah, Brahman, or (as I prefer) Life, is immaterial. What matters is recognizing that love does not depend on other people; it is available to anyone who opens to it. And what does such opening require? A calm, accepting, and connected spirit. In other words, devotional awareness is facilitated by the fruits of meditation, which is why all religions include elements of peaceful, contemplative practice.
Listing the benefits that accrue, it seems obvious that meditation and devotion can serve as powerful antidotes to depression, anxiety, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, addictions, and so on. Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out some eighty years ago, with its emphasis on prayer and meditation (stated explicitly in the Eleventh Step). I believe much faith-healing throughout the ages has been based on the same principles.
The point is, many problems of mental health can be looked at as problems of spiritual health (a few may be primarily due to brain chemistry, but even here meditation and devotion may help). It is this insight, which seems ever more obvious to me as my own wellbeing improves, that recently prompted me to apply to a training program for Spiritual Directors. I briefly considered psychotherapy programs, but I soon realized it makes more sense to work on the problem’s source rather than its downstream effects.
Which begs the question: Why are so many people so spiritually ill? I’m sure we all can imagine some possibilities: ecological deterioration, never-ending wars and violence, diminishing opportunities, intense competition, rampant consumerism, endemic injustice, disconnected communities, religious fanaticism, etc. What better recipe could there be for spiritual malaise?
These stressors are hard on everyone, but they hit those who have been traumatized or raised without affection even harder. Which explains why the frequency of psychiatric disorders shows such strong statistical association with childhood adversity. But sensitive people, even if raised with love, may still suffer in the face of the modern world’s madness.
In fact, it is a wonder that all people aren’t mentally ill. Or maybe the term has been too narrowly defined. The documentary “I Am” makes the point that in indigenous cultures selfishness is considered a kind of mental disorder. If we added tendencies like excessive greed and lack of regard for others to the list of psychiatric afflictions, we’d probably find that psychological morbidity affects a majority of the population.
And I suppose–in considering the remainder of the populace that seems to be doing pretty well–we could remember Krishnamurti’s saying: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Perhaps those who feel no ill effects are just not paying close attention.
Well, we can’t fix our culture so easily as we can strengthen our minds and deepen our love. Not that meditative and devotional practices don’t take a lot of work, but they do yield fairly rapid results when pursued with vigor. My own healing is testimony to that.
I know you understand the power of spiritual growth. I just want to emphasize that as we seek solutions to this epidemic of depression, suicide, and other psychiatric afflictions, it is important to identify the directions most likely to lead to healing.
Psychotherapy, support for those who’ve been traumatized, exercise and nutrition, plus–in some cases–judicious use of medications, are all important. Of all the interventions, however, I place the greatest store in spiritual practice.
But above all, it is absolutely essential that we start to open up about this subject, as you have done so beautifully. Without honest, nonjudgmental conversation, too many people will suffer in isolation, and too many of those will take their own lives.
With Love and Admiration,
Man meditating photo available from Shutterstock