Navigating Mental Health and Spirituality

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May-time. It’s the month that we see mental health awareness week, with encouraging anecdotes and advice from our peers bravely speaking up about their own experiences of mental distress or disorder. In today’s Western society, mental health and mental illness awareness is on the increase. We are beginning to recognise how important it is to acknowledge and seek guidance for mental illness; to eliminate the culture of stigma around mental illness that discourages people from seeking out help.

With research, diagnoses and treatment facilities, and charities that support recovery from mental illness and encourage more open dialogue on the topic, there is much work still to be done here; but we are on our way in society. The extent to which mental illness is adequately conversed about within the church walls, however, is up for debate.

As Christians there is also the matter of spiritual struggle to consider. St Ignatius of Loyola coined it ‘spiritual desolation’: dryness, or attack, which we sometimes recognise we’re experiencing. A period when we grow tired or weary in our daily walk with Christ; or feel pulled away or separated from our faith and far from God. This is not always candidly and openly addressed or spoken about within all churches and communities; we are so often left with the popular sound-bite, ‘God is Good’, or told we must remain strong, pray harder, hang in there. And yes, God is good. But when we ourselves are overcome by this sense of desolation, when we are feeling dispirited, these well-intentioned encouragements can remain empty words.

75% adults with a diagnosable mental health problem experience will have developed THEIR first symptoms in adolescence or young adulthood (by age 24)- yet around half of young adults are embarrassed to disclose if they do live with mental illness.

Mental illness and spiritual struggle are both hardships that we may experience; and the two are not to be conflated or interchanged. What we do find however, is that they often can collaborate. Scarcely discussed in our churches is the question of how the mental and the spiritual relate. What experiences can we say count as spiritual hardships, and what instances should be recognised as mental illness? As we navigate through our times of struggle, how can we know which is which?

St Teresa of Calcutta experienced both deep unhappiness and pain during her times of desolation, which could today be perceived as symptoms of depression; and at points of St Therese of Liseux’s life, she confessed having a ‘depressed spirit’, and was tempted to suicide.

We know there can be spiritual struggle without mental illness. For some of us, our mental struggles would not affect our daily functioning to the extent that they reach the threshold of a diagnosable mental illness. And so we experience darkness, dryness or separation from God, we battle against temptations and influences of the enemy; and somehow, by embracing or moving through the suffering, with self-coping strategies, with help from our churches and communities, and by grace; we cope. We pull through. However, can there be mental illness without spiritual struggle?

We hear the stories of many saints whose spiritual practices were often hailed as traits of spiritual holiness, whereas if looked at in another light may be regarded as symptoms of mental disorder. The mystical ecstasies that St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi experienced may today have been considered as a manic episode. St Teresa of Calcutta experienced both deep unhappiness and pain during her times of desolation, which could today be perceived as symptoms of depression; and at points of St Therese of Liseux’s life, she confessed having a ‘depressed spirit’, and was tempted to suicide. The extreme fasting practices of St Catherine of Siena was looked at as unhealthy by her contemporaries, in the same way eating disorders are considered today.

1 in 4 people will experience mental health illness at some point in their life

Whilst these Saints are considered great holy people, they did suffer in mind and spirit also. What these stories can teach us, is there can be spiritual struggle where there is also mental disorder. And more importantly, even in those who live with mental illnesses, God’s holiness still abounds.

So wherever the boundary lies between spiritual and mental struggle, it is clear that they can both be times of debilitating suffering, the both can interact and manifest at one time; and there are no set rules or formulas that determine why or how. It may be too complicated, too well-intertwined, too subtle to try and tease apart where, or if, spiritual desolation stops and mental illness starts.

In England, women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

So maybe the key is to not be focused on answering this question. This article will not and cannot give absolute, adequate, professional, or conclusive answers on this question. But here we want to accomplish two things. Firstly, starting the discussion.

This is an invitation to bring this conversation more into the light of open discussion within our churches and communities. Healing action can only be taken once we acknowledge that this is an issue.

Secondly: We posit that the key is to BE AWARE of both. TAKE CARE of both. SEEK HELP for both. For ourselves,for our friends and loved ones. We are made in the image and likeness of God; thus, whilst we are human like Jesus was human, we are also Spiritual beings, and need to recognise the importance of both, the beauty of both; the battle on both dimensions.

We all have minds. And so we all need to monitor our mental health. If you or someone you know is suffering from what you think may be more than just a hard time; if you’re mental suffering means you can no longer cope in the same way you used to, you might be suffering from mental illness. In these situations, it’s important to go to your GP. Ask for a mental health assessment. Seek support from charities like MIND, Samaritans, Rethink, Papyrus, The Mix, and many more out there.

Yet we cannot forget the impact of spiritual help and strengthening. Christ walked on his own path through suffering; in betrayal, in mental distress at Gethsemane, through emotional physical and mental pain in his crucifixion. And He overcame. We can also dare to hope (and pray) that we will overcome as well. We all have a spirit, and the Spirit working within and for us. The other side of that coin, however, is that the enemy is also fighting for us in this spiritual realm, and we can sometimes fall into experiencing an absence of The Holy Spirit, spiritual dryness or desolation, or even being under spiritual attack. When we feel out of balance in our spirit, or are revealed this about others around us, we also need to seek help. Good sources of spiritual help can be found in a good confessor, a supportive prayer group, a spiritual director or counsellor, a humble local priest or pastor, and even groups like Unbound ministries who fight for freedom from spiritual bondage.

And lastly; be encouraged. Take heart. You don’t know the answer or solution to your problems? Neither do we. But you are never alone.  We can walk together on the path of the uncertain, knowing at least one thing- that Jesus walks with us.

‘Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.’

Isaiah 40:28-29

We thank You Lord, for your all-knowing Nature. Thank You for walking with us through our struggles of life, our questions, our uncertainties. May we hold the tension of seeking Truth and trusting in your grace, that whether in spiritual or mental torment, or both, we may face our trials of life and courageously seek out the help You want to give, knowing that You always remain holding us in Your love. We lean not on our own understanding; our life is in Your hands, Maker of Heaven.

By Cynthia Nebo