How Religion Helps Us Cope With Mental Health Challenges
Religion and medicine have been intertwined throughout history, especially in Eastern countries. During the past 30 years there has been growing interest in and research studies have been conducted on the relationship between religion and spirituality and mental health. Findings have shown, for the most part, that religion has a positive effect on well-being and mental health.
“spiritual resilience is a powerful tool in… maintaining good mental health”
Today mental health is emerging as one of the most pressing topics of medical concern worldwide, requiring serious attention and support. Amidst the devastating and disabling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, distress, anxiety, and fear have been soaring. This has led, among other negative behaviors, to a rise in opioid and other drug abuse. On the other hand, millions are turning to prayer and religious coping as well as to psychological counseling.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is defined as “capabilities and positive adaptation that enable people both to cope with adversity and to reach their full potential and humanity.” In this light, spiritual resilience is a powerful tool in coping with adversity and maintaining good mental health.
“There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the treatment of physicians; the second consisteth in prayers offered by the spiritual ones to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practised.” He explained that “an illness caused by affliction, fear, nervous impressions, will be healed more effectively by spiritual rather than by physical treatment.” - Abd’ul-Baha
Could current psychotherapy of emotional disorders be viewed as spiritual therapy? This depends on what kind of psychotherapy it is. However, we can assume that if any therapy takes into consideration the spiritual reality of human nature it will have spiritual benefit to the patient.
There are psychological, social, and cultural factors involved in our recognizing and coping with mental health problems. Being mindful of inequalities among those who receive mental health assistance is an imperative which requires that all who provide such assistance exercise the spiritual qualities of compassion and fairness. In addressing global mental health, we need not only to improve people’s health and well-being but also to prevent diseases of the mind and mood.
Spirituality & Mental Health: Is Mental Illness Spiritual Weakness?
Most people who get bipolar—which used to be called manic depression—have their first symptoms as teens or young adults, and have to try to keep it under control for their entire lives.
Bipolar disorder rudely interrupts every aspect of their lives. They can no longer function within their family, at work, among friends, or meet their volunteer commitments. Neither can they function as a spiritual being. Prayers? No desire. Meditation? Can’t begin to focus. Attend spiritual gatherings? No way; they either feel too manic to sit still or too depressed to leave the house.
A Baha’i Perspective on Spirituality and Mental Health
Regarding human emotions, Abdu’l-Baha explained that “[in] this world we are influenced by two sentiments, joy and pain…There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter — the spiritual world bestows only the joy!”
Although this quotation from the Baha’i teachings does not refer to the extreme mood swings that characterize bipolar disorder and major depression, it does address the impact of our fluctuating moods on our everyday functioning:
Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings. – Abdu’l-Baha
Disorder soon makes them feel more and more alienated, not only from their friends and community members, but from their previously deeply-held spiritual beliefs. The strong, steady spiritual light burning in their soul withered to a weak, sputtering flicker, and then seems virtually extinguished for a while. They are lost and overwhelmed in the mangled, strangled neuronal nightmare that bipolar had caused in their brain. They feel like they have fallen into a spiritually weakened state.
But even if all that is going on in their brain at the time, what is the actual state of their soul? Fortunately, despite their subjective feelings of spiritual alienation, apparently their soul is protected throughout the ordeal:
Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments …. Consider again the sun when it is completely hidden behind the clouds. Though the earth is still illumined with its light, yet the measure of light which it receiveth is considerably reduced. Not until the clouds have dispersed, can the sun shine again in the plenitude of its glory. Neither the presence of the cloud nor its absence can, in any way, affect the inherent splendor of the sun. The soul of man is the sun by which his body is illumined, and from which it draweth its sustenance, and should be so regarded. – Baha’u’llah
In other words, although they could not appreciate the inherently healthy state of their soul at the time, it remained entirely unaffected by their mental illness and by their inability to nurture it in the ways they normally would have through prayer, meditation, acts of service, doing work in the spirit of worship, and so on.
What a relief!
More recent assurance about the difference between mental illness and spiritual weakness comes from the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith:
… mental illness is not spiritual, although its effects may indeed hinder and be a burden in one’s striving toward spiritual progress.
How to Reconcile Spirituality and Mental Health
Friends, if any of you reading this currently struggle with a mental health challenge, or if a loved one does, please be assured: mental illness categorically does not mean spiritual weakness! Just like any bodily malady, mental illness means simply dealing with an adversity—or in some cases a true calamity—that will severely test us and those around us.
Just remember that sun behind the clouds: it’s always shining there; it will surely reappear. Until it does, let’s try to apply this spiritual prescription:
If sorrow and adversity visit us, let us turn our faces to the Kingdom and heavenly consolation will be outpoured.
Bahá’ís of Botswana
Bahá’í communities are working together with their neighbours and friends to promote and contribute to the well-being and progress of society. In urban centres and rural villages, in homes and schools, citizens of all backgrounds, classes and ages are participating in a dynamic pattern of life, taking part in activities which are, at once, spiritual, social and educational.
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