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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mental Illness as a Spiritual Defect

A complaint against the mental health staff is that they consider chemical imbalances but do not address spiritual defects of the mentally ill.  The red flag that goes up here is memories of the care of the mentally ill some years ago when they were not medicated but rather imprisoned and treated brutally.  They were treated as if they had fundamental mental defects which were their own fault.  The view that mental illness is the result of impaired brain chemistry that can be medicated has made humane care more possible (I say more possible because the conscientious objectors who worked in mental hospitals in the 1940’s subscribed to humane care even under the most adverse conditions.  My Uncle Calhoun Geiger related firsthand accounts of this in his book Leadings.)  I would like to posit that the brain does what is necessary to cope with adverse conditions.  If reality becomes too unacceptable, the brain takes over and makes it acceptable in one way or another.  Mental illness can be seen as a subconscious reaction to transform the unacceptable into the acceptable.  Like addiction, it is a way to cope with mental anguish.  Depression, for example, is remedied by mania.  Those who are hurting from feelings of insignificance become filled with fame and significance (at least in their own minds).  The spiritual life, among many things, offers the benefit of a feeling of significance.  This feeling can be antidotal to despair.  To know that God is love, and that he loves me, involves spiritual insight.  Unfortunately it is an insight that cannot be foisted on one, but must be perceived quietly and indirectly by the grace of God.  Unlike medication, grace cannot be prescribed—would that it could.  So in the end, to say that mental illness is a spiritual defect (no matter how true) is not too helpful since there is no way to directly treat it.  The perceptual changes resulting from God’s grace does not flow from dogma so much as loving relationships which model that grace, so a doctrinaire approach—the bureaucratic method--would be pointless. Small groups where people practice disciplines of love are promising and are in fact used in many mental health treatments. 

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