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Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anorexia. Major depressive disorder. Be totally honest, now: how do these psychiatric diagnoses make you feel?
All in all, how comfortable are you with the entire topic of mental illness? I used to cower at the mere mention of these terms. I felt irrational fear and inadequacy, and I’d do anything to avoid the issue; head in the sand; think about something else.
In short, my responses were not at all spiritual. All this from me, a health professional who trained as a nurse and who has a PhD in public health. I should have known better!
But then, with no warning, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic-depression, ten years ago at the age of 51. This knocked me right off my complacent and self-satisfied feet. I was completely derailed. Learning I had bipolar disorder caused me to feel exiled, lost, shocked, confused and ashamed.
Why ashamed? You see, even though I did several rotations in psychiatric hospitals as a young nurse, I was still as judgmental about mental illness as most people in society. Deep down, I honestly thought I was “above” it; somehow inherently superior to people who couldn’t mentally “keep their act together.”
Now that I’ve been on the other side of the thin line that separates mental health from mental illness, I can appreciate how unspiritual and immature my previous attitudes were. I’m truly ashamed to admit that I stigmatized and judged people with mental illnesses. I saw them as lesser human beings, unworthy of respect, undeserving of dignity.
Now I have a mission: to help end the stigma against mental illnesses of all kinds, in all age groups, and to encourage everyone—whether we cope with a mental illness ourselves, or whether we have someone with a mental illness in our network of family, friends or colleagues—to take a more spiritual approach to mental illness.
When I was first diagnosed, I thought my world had come to an end. I honestly could not imagine a worse fate than being a mad woman, lunatic, maniac, you fill in the blank. I had completely forgotten this guidance in the Baha’i writings:
Do not grieve at the afflictions and calamities that have befallen thee. All calamities and afflictions have been created for man so that he may spurn this mortal world—a world to which he is much attached. When he experienceth severe trials and hardships, then his nature will recoil and he will desire the eternal realm—a realm which is sanctified from all afflictions and calamities. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 239.
When calamity striketh, be ye patient and composed. However afflictive your sufferings may be, stay ye undisturbed, and with perfect confidence in the abounding grace of God, brave ye the tempest of tribulations and fiery ordeals. – Ibid., p. 74.
Maintaining my composure posed a massive test for me as a Baha’i when I became severely mentally ill. I was in no way patient or undisturbed. In fact, one part of me felt spiritually abandoned, while another part felt separated from God as if by an impenetrable barrier. I had neither the mental nor spiritual resources to pray for myself, let alone anyone else. I simply wasn’t functioning well on any level.
This then resulted in a lot of guilt at not being able to fulfil my responsibilities as a Baha’i. I wasn’t able to attend meetings or other community events. Only later did I discover this advice to a Baha’i undergoing psychiatric treatment, which would have been very reassuring at the time:
There is no object in over-taxing your will power and strength by forcing yourself to do things for the Cause. You should let your mind rest in the thought of the infinite love, mercy and forgiveness of Baha’u’llah, and cease to fret about whether you are or are not doing your share until you fully recover your health—and evidently you already are on the road to recovery! – From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual Baha’i, March 26, 1945.
To summarize, then, taking a spiritual approach to mental illness has two components. First, for those of us in contact with people living with a mental illness, we need to be infinitely empathetic, non-judgmental and respectful towards them: after all, as the Baha’i teachings promise, their souls remain perfectly intact:
Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 153-154.
Second, for those of us living with a mental illness of any kind—and statistics indicate that about one in five people will experience a mental illness each year, and one in three over the course of a lifetime—we need to face this challenge as a spiritual test, while also being compassionate with ourselves and taking all the steps needed to recover.
So, how comfortable are you with the topic of mental illness now? What else can you do to become more spiritual in your responses to mental illness in all its forms?