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I was struck with a severe mental illness—rapid cycling bipolar disorder, Type I—at the age of 51.

Most people who get bipolar—which used to be called manic depression—have their first symptoms as teens or young adults, and have to try to keep it under control for their entire lives. In the ten years since my mental illness occurred, I have learned a thing or two about myself, mental illness in general, and its impact on me spiritually.

Thankfully I’m in recovery now, but bipolar disorder rudely interrupted every aspect of my life. I could no longer function within my family, at work, among friends, or meet my volunteer commitments. Neither could I function as a spiritual being. Prayers? No desire. Meditation? Couldn’t begin to focus. Attend spiritual gatherings? No way; I either felt too manic to sit still or too depressed to leave the house.

A Baha’i Perspective on Spirituality and Mental Health

Although this quotation from the Baha’i teachings does not refer to the extreme mood swings that characterize bipolar disorder and major depression, it does address the impact of our fluctuating moods on our everyday functioning:

Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 109-110.

painting of spirituality and mental healthMy disorder soon made me feel more and more alienated, not only from my Baha’i friends and community members, but from my previously deeply-held spiritual beliefs. The strong, steady spiritual light burning in my soul withered to a weak, sputtering flicker, and then seemed virtually extinguished for a while. I was lost and overwhelmed in the mangled, strangled neuronal nightmare that bipolar had caused in my brain. It certainly felt like I had fallen into a spiritually weakened state.

But even if all that was going on in my brain at the time, what was the actual state of my soul? Fortunately, despite my subjective feelings of spiritual alienation, apparently my soul was protected throughout the ordeal:

Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments …. Consider again the sun when it is completely hidden behind the clouds. Though the earth is still illumined with its light, yet the measure of light which it receiveth is considerably reduced. Not until the clouds have dispersed, can the sun shine again in the plenitude of its glory. Neither the presence of the cloud nor its absence can, in any way, affect the inherent splendor of the sun. The soul of man is the sun by which his body is illumined, and from which it draweth its sustenance, and should be so regarded. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 153-154.

In other words, although I myself could not appreciate the inherently healthy state of my soul at the time, it remained entirely unaffected by my mental illness and by my inability to nurture it in the ways I normally would have through prayer, meditation, acts of service, doing work in the spirit of worship, and so on.

What a relief!

More recent assurance about the difference between mental illness and spiritual weakness comes from the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith:

… mental illness is not spiritual, although its effects may indeed hinder and be a burden in one’s striving toward spiritual progress. – From a letter written to an individual Baha’i, June 15, 1982.

How to Reconcile Spirituality and Mental Health

Friends, if any of you reading this currently struggle with a mental health challenge, or if a loved one does, please be assured: mental illness categorically does not mean spiritual weakness! Just like any bodily malady, mental illness means simply dealing with an adversity—or in some cases a true calamity—that will severely test us and those around us.

Just remember that sun behind the clouds: it’s always shining there; it will surely reappear. Until it does, let’s try to apply this spiritual prescription:

If sorrow and adversity visit us, let us turn our faces to the Kingdom and heavenly consolation will be outpoured.

If we are sick and in distress let us implore God’s healing, and He will answer our prayer.

When our thoughts are filled with the bitterness of this world, let us turn our eyes to the sweetness of God’s compassion and He will send us heavenly calm! If we are imprisoned in the material world, our spirit can soar into the Heavens and we shall be free indeed! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 111.

22 Comments

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  • Therese Poirier
    Dec 20, 2018
    For years and years I've suffered with anxiety and very low self-esteem. I tried getting help several times; I learned a little to move forward a little. Never liked the term mental illness. I prefer a positive term. I've found good information on a video "The mythe of normal" by Gabor Mate, known for his treatment of addictions. I also studied Dialectical Behavior with our CHMA Family Resource Person. We can help ourselves and also learn how to respond to help others. A book by Christopher Germer on mindfulness is excellent. ...After many years of working on my anxiety and self-esteem I'm beginning to see myself as a self-motivated person striving to live a life of service.
    Read more...
    • Merryl Hammond
      Dec 21, 2018
      Wonderful insights; thanks for sharing, Therese. Concerning the term "mental illness": I know that my choice of the word "mad" in the title of my book ("Mad Like Me") is a bit shocking to some, but I chose it very purposefully, wanting to "claim" or "own" the historically stigmatized label. Much like members of a marginalized social group might call themselves by racist, homophobic, xenophobic etc. slurs in order to neutralize them and reduce their negative impact. Hope that makes sense?
  • Marlene Turner Russell
    Dec 19, 2018
    Bipolar has been diagnosed in some family members. Those that have saught treatment are living a life in spite of the diagnosis. Why do some resist seeking any treatment? Their thoughts and delusions are difficult to live with. Why do some feel they’re fine while others follow a treatment? What is the best way to handle those who refuse treatment when their behaviour is impossible to live with? Thanks for whatever light you can shed.
    • Merryl Hammond
      Dec 21, 2018
      If a family member is in denial about their diagnosis, there is little you can do except educate yourself about the signs and symptoms, and encourage them to do so too. (Reading memoirs by people with bipolar like Hornbacher [“Madness”] and myself [“Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country”] will be useful.) But if they’ve accepted the diagnosis and are refusing treatment for some reason, that’s another matter. Side effects are a real issue, but there are so many options and combinations of meds, it’s worth them working with a doctor to find a “good fit”. Meantime, please seek support ...for yourself as a carer: there are excellent community organizations that support family members. Good luck coping with this challenge; it's not easy, I know.
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  • Pierre Austin
    Dec 18, 2018
    Allah'u'abha Merryl,
    Years ago, I myself tended to resist such a diagnosis and rebuke the medication. My wife reminded me about my duty as a Baha'i to obey Baha'u'llah's teachings as regards to the help we should seek when our health is compromised. You mentionned beautiful and inspiring writings . They feed the soul even when the 'outer being' is weakened.
    I am glad I met you in your ''good'' days; my image of you in my heart is not diminishing in any way - even enhanced.
    Fill a bathtub with warm prayers and immerse yourself in that rejuvenating ...fountain of divine grace.
    Read more...
    • Merryl Hammond
      Dec 18, 2018
      Thanks for your kind and very eloquent comment, Pierre! I love your image of a bathtub filled with warm prayers. You're lucky to have a very wise wife: we all need a loved one to guide us gently when we're experiencing mental distress or illness...
  • Jared Boergadine
    Dec 13, 2018
    Merryl, Have you come across anything in the writing in regards to Personality Disorders? Such as Borderline Personality, Anti Social Personality Disorders, and Narcissism? Or do you think these afflictions also fall under a Mental Disorder?
    • Merryl Hammond
      Dec 14, 2018
      Great question, Jared, and you’ve given me an idea for a future article! I did extensive research using the Baha'i Reference Library (https://www.bahai.org/library/) for my articles, and could find no references to specific psychiatric diagnoses like personality disorders, bipolar (or manic depression), schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. But using today’s standards, the specific disorders you mention are definitely considered to be mental disorders, and diagnosis and treatment of them are included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) used by psychiatrists worldwide. Hope this helps?
  • Dec 13, 2018
    Thank you for the courage to write this, Merryl! It's such an important point for Baha'is to understand! I too have written my understanding of what the Writings say, in case anyone wants more information: http://susangammage.com/mental-illness-a-bahai-perspective
    • Merryl Hammond
      Dec 14, 2018
      Thanks for sharing that resource, Susan. I'll make time asap to study it!
  • John Haukness
    Dec 12, 2018
    Interesting way of looking at it. We need all helpful insights like this
  • Barbara Lachmar
    Dec 12, 2018
    Thank you so much for these articles -I have several family members and friends who suffer from bi-polar and other mental illnesses-I have grow to appreciate the remarkable courage as tenacity it takes to cope with and overcome these illnesses-knowing these maladies do not affect the soul is a great comfort!
    • Merryl Hammond
      Dec 12, 2018
      Thanks for your comment, Barbara. Pleased to hear that you found comfort in the article!
  • Kelly Jackson Caudle
    Dec 12, 2018
    I have the same exact diagnosis as this lady. I'm 36 years old and everything changed when I was 30. But I never forgot prayer and God and loving others.
  • Rose Maris
    Dec 11, 2018
    Thank you for this article! I find that dealing with my mental illness has made me a spiritual stronger person. More accepting and loving towards myself and others, more patient and less judgement. But above all: surrender myself to God, to trust Him, even if I do not trust myself.
  • Anthony Adams
    Dec 11, 2018
    Such a marvellous insight into the depression that has plagued my adult life. Thank you.