Is Religion the Reason for Mental Illness? December 11, 2021
Hello everyone, and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read another one of my blogs. As always, I'm going to jump right in.
I recently submitted 30 pages of my book, Grateful: Faith, Healing and the Gift of Music, to a grant program that was awarding 75 grants to people in the arts. Being an odd year, 2021, they included a literary category. So, away I went.
The three person panel of judges read every entry, then did a zoom meeting that we were allowed to sit in on. Our entries were listed with a number rather than our names and we listened to them critique our work anonymously. What an education it was.
As I listened to my critique, I was disenchanted with the fact that they missed the point of my book, which is to give Glory to God in gratitude for all that He pulled me through during my lifelong struggle with Bipolar Disorder. That was the element of Faith. What they felt I was going for by the word “Faith,” was how religion and mental illness went together. That is what they wanted me to expound on and they were “disappointed” that I did not delve deeper into that subject matter.
Well, there is a reason that I did not do that. It was simply not the point of my book, because it was not what I believed or experienced. Symptoms of mental illness do include things like religious delusions, but I never experienced them, nor do I believe that practicing a religion causes them. It begs the question, “what is a religious delusion and why do they occur?” I eventually did some research on that very subject.
“To be classified as a religious delusion, the belief must be idiosyncratic, rather than accepted within a particular culture or subculture . Strongly held beliefs that are shared within an existing religious or spiritual context would not, therefore, be considered to be religious delusions, irrespective of co-occurring psychosis.”
© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013
So if a Christian, for example, feels strongly that they heard the voice of Jesus, that would not be a “religious delusion.” However, if someone thought that their pillow was Jesus, and when they went to sleep, it told them what to do tomorrow, THAT would be a religious delusion.
Their critique of my book, though way off base, did have some basis, and while it was beyond the scope of “Grateful,” it did trigger this blog. I think their point was that religion is the reason for mental illness, or at the very least, plays a significant role. So here I am to answer that ill informed question. The answer is a simple and resounding, No. Bipolar Disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain, plain and simple. That is the reason and cause of Bipolar Disorder. Let me elaborate.
It is true that I am a deeply religious person, raised a Catholic. At the time of the onset of Manic and Depressive Illness, as it was originally called, I was very attached to my faith. I was a young adult of 20 years old. The disease caused me to wander in my faith, even let go for a time. I was disheartened with it, as I was sick and my life was falling apart. I turned to God and begged Him to heal me, but my life remained full of struggle and I was in need of treatment.
Ironically, when I came home from college having failed all of my classes, unable to study due to my first experience with depression and mania, my parents were alarmed and in denial that treatment was what I needed. They did feel, however, that I needed prayer.
They took me to church, my mother lit candles, my father took me to the priest for a blessing. The entire parish prayed for me when they saw the state I was in, not fully realizing the depth of my illness. It was a family, an extended family where no one was Mr. or Mrs. anything. We were all cousins, aunts, or uncles of an extended nature. Some were even a second mother and father to me. It was home, and before I became very sick, I relished being there throughout my entire childhood and as a young adult prior to onset.
It didn’t help though. I needed a doctor, not a priest. Did this mean that religion was the reason for my illness. No, of course not. It just wasn’t the treatment I needed. While I knew that God heard our every prayer, I never felt it was helping. Why wasn’t He healing me? I just couldn’t see the point at the time. I couldn’t see that God had a specific plan for my life, a plan that would enrich my faith life beyond measure, which is the reason I wrote the book.
Religion was always a place of comfort, and closeness to God, but the disease caused me to run from everything familiar. It made me uncomfortable everywhere I went, so I ran from church, family and pretty much everything I knew. I resented my upbringing. Still, I was depressed everywhere I went because I was depressed, not because of where I was or who I was with. The disease followed me whether I was in church, at a family gathering, or in the bars I escaped to, to go out and sing, and eventually drink too much.
What then was the cause of my affective mood disorder, which was happening in the brain? I spoke of this in my book. Bipolar Disorder is genetic. As I entered treatment, the first question they asked me was, “Does anyone in your family have a history of Bipolar Disorder or any other mental illness?” Early on, we did not know. I did, however, come to learn later that there was an aunt on my mothers side of the family who was manic depressive, as it was called back then. This was before there was medication and she was hospitalized and given electric shock therapy.
Praise God that we have come a long way, though it took decades. I was eventually hospitalized, thirty years after the onset, because my life was unmanageable and I didn’t manage my medication effectively. (That’s a fancy way of saying pretty much stopped taking it).
Praise God again for the overhaul He gave my faith life. Today I look back on my life and though I struggled tremendously, I see how God made beautiful music out of a nasty mess, and turned my trials into testimonies. I do not regret the walk I endured, as it led me to a faith life that I treasure, and the knowledge that only God could have done that. He strengthened me and brought me even closer to my church, and my religious life outside the church. He saved me and continues to save me everyday. Glory to God. Thank you Jesus for all that you have brought me through and all that you brought me to!
THAT, is the point of my book.