Saturday, 27 October 2012



By Nthezemu Kamanga

Spirituality is an untapped resource for recovery from serious mental health issues. We know that spirituality and religion can play a role in health and wellness for everyone. The public mental health system has been hesitant to venture into this realm. With good reason, actually, because we don’t want to run afoul of the separation of church and state. But a lack of clear understanding has too often led practitioners to avoid the entire subject of spirituality and religion with their clients, which is a shame. The initiative is needed to provide clear information about how to venture into this territory, and how to do it effectively, legally, and ethically.

As seen above, there is n conclusive answer as to whether the two can be linked or not. When I threw the idea to a group of medical practioners, who most of them are primarily religious, I got different responses which gave me a platform to see the magnanimity of the issue at hand.

Every year on the 10th of October, there is a reflection concerning mental health. World Mental Health Day raises public awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services. This year’s theme “Depression: A Global Crisis”, gives us a chance to direct our attention to needs and opportunities for improved care.

Depression can affect anyone and it is one of the most widespread illnesses, often co-existing with other serious illnesses. According to the World Health Organization, unipolar depressive disorders were ranked as the third leading cause of the global burden of disease in 2004 and will move into the first place by 2030.

Working in a psychiatric unit and being with the church for a considerable time, I have seen people with mental health problems taking refuge in God. Each time you meet them, they talk something about God. God to them is universal. The question then arises as to why some people push the issue of mental health connection to religion to the margin. People who have schizophrenia may believe that they are deity figures, or they may claim some special ability to communicate with deity. Why might this be?

Ellah Mithi, a health practioner herself, says that people easily link the healing of people with evil spirits in the bible to the spiritual healing conducted today. This element too delinks these mental clients from medical attention as some think that they can be healed only through prayer and not medicine provided by the hospital. There are even some pastors who encourage their flock not to take medication but only to rely on prayer? Can this bring positive link?

Historically, religion and mental health issues have had an uneasy relationship–and it goes both ways: people with mental illness have long faced stigma in religious communities, and mental health professionals have, for the most part, been suspicious of religion.

Mental health professionals are often trained to bracket out a patient’s religion in the name of professional boundaries, and have been encouraged to consider religion in the context of a medical model that can view spiritual beliefs as potential psychiatric symptoms.

As psychologist David Lukoff explains: ‘this tendency, representing a form of cultural insensitivity, can be traced back to the roots of psychoanalysis as well as behaviorism and cognitive therapy. Freud saw religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis,” Skinner ignored religious experience, and Ellis viewed religion as equivalent to irrational thinking and emotional disturbance. Similarly, spiritual experiences have been viewed as evidence of psychopathology. This is unrealistic to be believed.
But the understanding of the role of religion and spirituality in mental health should change.

Spirituality should be regarded as a potential resource in mental health recovery and wellness. It is a known fact that long-term illness can lead to a spiritual crisis. Spiritual practices then go a long way in helping someone cope with day-to-day situations. Why would it be any different for people with mental health conditions? In fact, I would say it’s even more important because when your mind and your emotions are affected, it can raise existential questions like, “Why me? Have I done something wrong to cause this to happen to me? Can I still rely on myself? What will the future hold for me?”

The experience of “madness” can include a profound experience of connection and spirituality; oneness with nature; and the meaning and purpose of life. The mental health system has viewed this spiritual aspect of madness as delusional and as only a manifestation of the mental illness; denying the profound and potentially positive effects of this experience. The experience of madness can also lead to a painful and heightened awareness of the hand you were dealt in your life and the inequities of society. For many people with mental health issues, spirituality is key to understanding this experience. It is essential in their journey of recovery. Also faith communities have provided a sense of belonging and welcome to people who have been marginalized and experienced stigma and discrimination resulting from the public’s fear of persons with psychiatric diagnoses.

Religious and spiritual factors are increasingly being examined in psychiatric research. Religious beliefs and practices have long been linked to hysteria, neurosis, and psychotic delusions. However, recent studies have identified another side of religion that may serve as a psychological and social resource for coping with stress. While religious beliefs and practices can represent powerful sources of comfort, hope, and meaning, they are often intricately entangled with neurotic and psychotic disorders, sometimes making it difficult to determine whether they are a resource or a liability.

If we may ask as to why people with schizophrenia in some cases have a religious theme to their delusional belief system? I do have some response here as I conclude my article. Schizophrenia is a set of very dramatic disorders which sometimes involve vivid delusional systems. Consequently, some schizophrenics “see” or “hear” things that no one else sees or hears. People who have schizophrenia may believe that they are deity figures, or they may claim some special ability to communicate with deity.

I, for one, would be surprised if schizophrenic delusions never involved religious themes. Religion is a part of life–a part that is quite important to many people–and it only seems reasonable to expect delusions to sometimes involve religion. So, for example, some people’s delusions involve the belief that they are Jesus Christ, while others may believe that they are some great sports figure.

Wouldn’t it be odd if delusions didn’t involve important aspects of life? How then can we separate religion and mental health?

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