Could Spirituality Help People Recover from Serious Mental Disorders?

By David Lukoff, PhD.

Mental health systems in this country are undergoing a quiet revolution. Former patients and other advocates are working with mental health providers and government agencies to incordavid-lukoff-222x196.jpgporate spirituality into mental healthcare.

While the significance of spirituality in substance abuse treatment has been acknowledged for many years due to widespread recognition of the therapeutic value of 12-step programs, this is a new development in the treatment of serious mental disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The incorporation of spirituality into treatment is part of the recovery model which has become widely accepted in the US and around the world. In 1999, the Surgeon General, in a landmark report on mental health, urged that all mental health systems adopt the recovery model.

images-1.jpegThe medical model tends to define recovery in negative terms (e.g., symptoms and complaints that need to be eliminated, disorders that need to be cured or removed). Mark Ragins observed that focusing on recovery does not discount the seriousness of the conditions:

“For severe mental illness it may seem almost dishonest to talk about recovery. After all, the conditions are likely to persist, in at least some form, indefinitely. . . The way out of this dilemma is by realizing that, whereas the illness is the object of curative treatment efforts, it is the persons themselves who are the objects of recovery efforts.”

Recovery from a mental disorder is experienced by many people as part of their spiritual journey. This was eloquently expressed by Jay Mahler, Program Director of the Mental Health Division of Contra Costa County:

“The whole medical vocabulary puts us in the role of a ‘labeled’ diagnosed victim. . . . But as they go through trial and error to control your symptoms, it doesn’t take a genius to realize they haven’t got the answers. No clue about cures! And oh boy, those side effects! I don’t say medications can’t help, or that treatments won’t have value.images-2.jpegBut, what I do say is that my being aware that I’m on a spiritual journey empowers me to deal with the big, human ‘spiritual’ questions, like: ‘Why is this happening to me? Will I ever be the same again? Is there a place for me in this world? Can my experience of life be made livable? If I can’t be cured can I be recovering, even somewhat? Has my God abandoned me?’ We who have it have to wonder whether what remains constitutes a life worth living. That’s my spiritual journey, that wondering. That’s my search.”

Sally Clay, who was hospitalized at the Hartford Institute of Living with schizophrenia, writes: “My recovery had nothing to do with the talk therapy, the drugs, or the electroshock treatments I had received; more likely, it happened in spite of these things. My recovery did have something to do with the devotional services I had been attending. . . I was cured instantly— healed if you will—as a direct result of a spiritual experience.”


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