Over the years I have heard more nonsense about mental illness and spirituality than any other topic I can think of, and I have heard that nonsense from every imaginable corner – clinicians, pastors, spiritual teachers, folks with mental illness, and people who have absolutely no background or qualifications to be offering an informed opinion on the issue. I have heard so-called experts who are not physicians offer opinions on the advisability of taking medications vis-a-vis the spiritual journey that are based on a pre-scientific world view that does not distinguish between intoxicants and psychotropic medications.
In 1991 I began having panic attacks as I was starting to address issues of abuse in my childhood. This was a time when Prozac and Paxil – medications known as SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – were relatively new to the market. The only medications other than Prozac and Paxil to treat depression were the older tricyclic antidepressants. Benzodiazepines such as Valium were available to treat panic attacks, but as a long-term strategy they can be problematic. I was prescribed low doses of Prozac starting at 5 mg. Since at that time the smallest capsules available were 20 mg, I had to open them up and mix them with water. The solution tasted a lot like sucking on an uncoated aspirin tablet, but my panic attacks were so bad that I was willing to try anything. Each week we increased the dose by 1 mg until we got to 10 mg. After a few weeks not only were my panic attacks subsiding, but I noticed that it was as if a dark cloud was lifting from my psyche. I started to wonder if I had been depressed for most, if not all, of my life. I didn’t have to wonder for long, and I was soon being treated for major depression, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that resulted from my abuse history.
I am one of the lucky ones who responds well to treatment. As an aside, my panic attacks were eventually resolved through hypnotherapy – something I never believed in until it worked for me. Since I began treatment in 1991, I have had only two relapses of my depression and none at all since I began meditating in earnest in 2000. I still take medication because when we have attempted to taper the medication down my sleep becomes quite disrupted. I most likely will take medication for the rest of my life, and I am perfectly fine with that reality because I lived for so very long with the alternative. In the ten years that I worked in the mental health field I heard every excuse in the book for not taking medications, and I am here to tell you every last one of them is a fiction.
The most common arguments against the use of psychotropic medications (in terms of their not being advisable for spiritual reasons) are (1) that raw feelings are grist for the spiritual mill and (2) that medications make you “not yourself.” I can tell you from personal experience that the person I was before I received treatment was not the real me, and that the way I felt prior to starting treatment was hopeless, helpless, and worthless – and my panic attacks caused waves of fear, dread, and imminent death. Those feelings aren’t grist for the spiritual mill, they caused me to be suicidal. The sad truth is that I have never heard anyone who has a mental illness make the kind of absurd and irresponsible claims about spirituality and mental illness those who have no background or qualifications make with astonishing regularity.
Of course, there is more to mental illness than depression and panic. With any kind of mental illness there remains in our culture a fair amount of stigma rooted in ignorance. While I have never hidden the fact that I take anti-depressant medication, I have never emphasized it in my spiritual teaching, either. It certainly isn’t the biggest part of my identity – in fact, I seldom think about it – and so there didn’t seem to be much point in talking about it intentionally, especially in the early days of my ministry when I was trying to establish myself. I am beginning to feel differently. It’s absurd that we still have stigma surrounding mental illness, especially given that 15% of Americans will require treatment for major depression at some time in their lives and 50% of Americans have a mental illness of some type. Why is there a stigma around something that one of two people have? The answer is that we don’t talk about it, and so very few people realize how common mental illness is or how well people with mental illness can function.
With this post, I am starting to talk very intentionally. Watch for updates about support programs I will be developing around spirituality and mental health, and please feel free to participate. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and everything to gain by sharing our experiences. With your help, we can start to erase the stigma and end discrimination against our brothers and sisters with mental illness.