When we feel depressed, anxious, or distressed, are we mentally ill? Or are we spiritually confused?

By Will Meecham

If you’re interested in more of Will’s work I highly recommend his blog, WillSpirit, where he explores growing and wellbeing after recovering from a traumatic childhood.

When we feel depressed, anxious, or distressed, are we mentally ill? Or are we spiritually confused?

Not long ago, I railed against the mental “illness” concept (see The Death of Mental Illness). While it can’t be denied that people have problems in the mental sphere, I object to the widespread assumption that they suffer from organic diseases. Yes, symptoms sometimes diminish with pharmaceutical treatment, but that doesn’t prove they are caused by faulty neurons. But if we abandon the “brain dysfunction” formula, what do we replace it with?

It’s tempting to call depression, anxiety, mania, and other psychiatric symptoms spiritual maladies. Unfortunately, many people in our culture object to the language of mysticism and prefer the supposedly verifiable terminology of science. And yet, there does seem to be an aspect of soul-sickness in the conditions we label as mental illnesses.

For instance, the depressed person loses hope and sees the world as a hostile, lonely, and pointless wasteland. A spiritual viewpoint would recognize that despite the hardship in every life, interdependence and shared consciousness make us each an important actor in the vast human drama. The anxious person lives in fear of loss, humiliation, and loneliness. A higher understanding would embrace transience, unpredictability, and fragility of as the roots of life’s essential power and grace.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has long stressed the importance of meaningto mental well being. By fostering a sense of purpose, and finding lessons in our ordeals, we can endure stresses that would feel overwhelming if borne in isolation and unframed by wisdom.

It seems clear that the various mystical traditions offer solutions to depression and anxiety. If we go on to consider states of high mania, we recognize that the spiritually mature person would avoid many of their pitfalls. Grandiosity would be held in check by deep humility; impulsiveness would be countered by practiced forbearance; sexual misconduct would be eschewed out of desire to avoid harming others.

Furthermore, shamanic rituals and other mystical paths historically provided empowering interpretations of the sorts of mental intrusions that nowadays get labelled as hallucinations and delusions.

Organized religion has done the world an enormous disservice by equating spiritual practice with dogmatism and intolerance. Much of the reflexive atheism that discredits the word mysticism arose in reaction to the harm institutionalized faiths have done throughout history and into the present day.

We need to recover the high ground for the spiritual path. We can’t let atheists define it as infantile or fundamentalists define it in terms of fixed beliefs. We need to combine ancient wisdom with modern knowledge and devise mental health treatments that transform people rather than suppress symptoms. The importance of this task cannot be overstated. As long as we seek mental health in pills and thought hygiene alone, we will be denied the profound clarity and peace of mind available through soulful engagement with the eternal sweep of reality.

By Will Meecham. If you’re interested in more of his work I highly recommend his blog, WillSpirit, where he explores growing and wellbeing after recovering from a traumatic childhood.

About Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched MindfulBiology.org to combine clear explanations of biology with guided meditations, in order to help us better appreciate our amazing human bodies. Before he felt ready to start MindfulBiology.org, which he considers his life’s work, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. Although he had successfully completed years of higher education (in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine), when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he suffered psychiatric collapse. In the aftermath he was forced to confront vulnerabilities common in those who suffered hardship early in life. He found a tool for recovery in his knowledge of human biology. Understanding how his body responded to circumstances helped him accept the ups and downs of daily life as experienced by those who suffered trauma early on (a substantial proportion of the population). As he began to feel more stable and secure, he was fortunate to find work teaching anatomy and physiology at a yoga institute, where he developed methods for combining life science with embodied mindfulness practices. He now writes and offers local seminars to help people appreciate their own living system and to use biological knowledge to promote recovery.