The Baha’i writings emphatically state that mental health struggles are separate from the life of the soul: “The soul of man is exalted above and is independent of all infirmities of the body or mind.” But there also appears to be a strong correlation between spiritual strength and mental health management.
Even as a mental health professional myself, I’m still seeking to understand the connection between spirituality and mental health, and learning how to apply the spiritual teachings of my faith to my life.
I have experienced anxiety and depression at different points of my life and have come to feel that perhaps such struggles are part of our spiritual journey in this life and preparation for the next. Going through bouts of anxiety and depression were a catalyst for me to reflect on my purpose. I found myself asking: Why am I experiencing these tests and difficulties? Have I done something wrong to deserve this?
At times, these questions led me to question how much I was serving my community and whether I was doing my part as a professional counselor to truly help my clients. They led me to examine my underlying prejudices, my fear of failure and my need to please others.
I have begun to grasp that some things are in my power to change and some are not. Some of my struggles may be biologically inherited, and some may be a consequence of the environments I find myself in — and I may never be able to differentiate between them. But as painful as such challenges can be, the challenges we face can provide opportunities to grow in areas such as patience, forbearance, and tolerance.
The central figures of the Baha’i Faith have shared some wisdom in this regard. In a 1911 speech, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the founder and prophet of the Baha’i Faith, said: “Test are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him. Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting.”
Coming to this understanding has led me on a path of discovering what virtues I need to work on to grow spiritually. I’m learning to be honest with myself as a human being, as a member of my faith community and as a professional — to acknowledge what I’m capable of, listen to my inner voice, and practice truthfulness, which Baha’u’llah told us is the “foundation of all human virtues.”
All the prophets of God endured intense persecution and needed to take time to focus on their own wellness, pray, and reflect. For example, Moses went to the mountain, and Christ went to the wilderness. And although these holy figures had spiritual power beyond our capabilities, they were human as well. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:
“As we suffer these misfortunes we must remember that the Prophets of God Themselves were not immune from these things which men suffer. They knew sorrow, illness and pain too. They rose above these things through Their spirits, and that is what we must try and do too, when afflicted. The troubles of this world pass, and what we have left is what we have made of our souls; so it is to this we must look — to becoming more spiritual, drawing nearer to God, no matter what our human minds and bodies go through.”
Though there’s still stigma surrounding mental illness, it’s important that we move past those attitudes. Seeking help and support from a trained mental health professional can be essential. Therapy provides a safe and confidential space to explore any concerns a person may need to address, and furthermore, most clinicians today understand the importance of incorporating spirituality into their practice.
The skills used in therapy are fundamentally derivative of all spiritual traditions. They incorporate faith over fear as a coping skill, overcoming worries, changing anxious thoughts into peaceful ones, practicing grounding and mindfulness, strength-based methods, redirection, cognitive-behavioral approaches, and the idea that pure thoughts lead to pure actions.
When seeking an appropriate counselor, the initial intake interview can provide you with the opportunity to develop rapport with your clinician and determine if they respect your religious beliefs, and if they are open to using spiritual tools. Remember, the most essential spiritual quality is truthfulness: if you are not capable of being honest with your therapist, progress in counseling will be impossible.
Additionally, taking time to rely on the Divine remedy — the Word of God — has brought me much healing and helped me cope with my own mental health struggles. When we are in pain, we can lose sight that our faith in God can pull us through times of distress. I find comfort in one of my favorite quotes from the Baha’i writings:
“Rely upon God. Trust in Him. Praise Him, and call Him continually to mind. He verily turneth trouble into ease, and sorrow into solace, and toil into utter peace. He verily hath dominion over all things.”
Keeping our thoughts centered on prayer and the Word of God is critical, but we also have physical bodies that require training. Our minds benefit from exercise and training, which is why practices such as meditation and mindfulness better prepare us to be able to cope with the stressors of life.