The Difference Spirituality Can Make To Mental Health

@Glowimages MON043076.What could trigger the Twitter tribute “Unbelievably brave. Kevan Jones MP is a hero!” from a rival Conservative MP?

Tory Louise Mensch was praising the Labour MP’s courageous decision to share his experience of depression in last week’s House of Commons debate on mental illness.

During the discussion several other MPs also movingly related the impact mental illness has had on their lives.

News-wise the debate was overshadowed by the Leveson Inquiry, then hosting Prime Minister David Cameron. But the issue of mental illness remains undeniably newsworthy. As MP Gavin Barwell explained: “One in four of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetime; three in four will see a member of our immediate family experience a condition”.

He added the World Health Organisation has estimated that by 2030 more people will be afflicted by depression than by any other problem.

The Tory politician was drawn fourth in the Private Members’ Bill ballot last month offering him the opportunity to present the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill this Wednesday, which was first introduced in the Lords during the last parliamentary Session.

While anti-discrimination law is an essential step of progress for those suffering from a mental illness such as depression, the deeper desire of anyone in that situation is to be free of it.

Drugs are available but the value of antidepressants is increasingly questioned by medical researchers who find that placebos often prove nearly as effective, or sometimes as effective, in treating the disease.

Interviewed about this recently on the CBS show 60 Minutes, British physician, researcher and author DrIrving Kirsch – currently Associate Director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School – conceded: “Oh yes, people get better when they take the drug.”

“But,” he added, “it’s not the chemical ingredients of the drug that are making them better. It’s largely the placebo effect.”

On the other hand, author and newspaper commentator Maura Kelly recently articulated a personal story of how taking prescription drugs did help turn around a mental illness, describing herself as “someone whose life was dramatically improved by head meds – improved in demonstrable, physical ways”.

Given the current challenges with the scientific data for antidepressants, such anecdotal evidence is useful to the individual trying to weigh up the best way to successfully deal with such a debilitating ailment.

A friend of mine struggled for eight years with that question after he was diagnosed with clinical depression.  During that time he had top medical care and took thousands of prescribed pills. Yet he continued to endure such mental and physical lows that he frequently felt suicidal.

Sitting in a West London cafe recently, he told me how he won his freedom from depression over a period of months. During that time he found a faith that gave him a new perspective of himself and he was able to transition out of taking the drugs simply in order to function. In the decades since, his religion has had a positive impact on his experience and without the help of a single pill he has led a productive and happy life, raising a family of four and having a successful business career that has taken him around the globe.

What changed? His thinking. That might seem an obvious thing to state when there is a shift in a mental health difficulty. But in both mental and physical health a different, more spiritual, perspective of ourselves can prove to be a powerful healing agent.

Another friend recently shared how a spiritual approach helped her to work her way out of acute depression after a marriage proposal from her college sweetheart eventually ended in them breaking up.

She recalls driving and thinking, “What would it be like just to turn the steering wheel and drive off the road?” She continually asked herself: “Why live with this much mental angst?”

Mornings were especially tough, she remembered. “I was really unhappy when my alarm woke me up, because the dream-world felt so much better than waking-life”.

Despite loving friends and family she kept feeling like her “lights were off”.

Finally, at the urging of someone she asked to pray for her – a Christian Science practitioner – she was encouraged to focus on two things which at first felt almost impossible: to be grateful for each day and to think how she could be of help to others.

When she eventually started to implement this advice she found it to be transformative. As she strove to be a little more grateful and helpful each day she glimpsed it didn’t really matter so much what she was doing. What was most important was how she was thinking about what she was doing, and whether that included a sense of love.

Eventually she gained a firmer, clearer grasp on gratitude. And through small experiences of helping others she saw she had a purpose, just as everyone does. Contentment, satisfaction, and joy began to replace her sense of loss and despair.

Now, she says, she has realized that “no matter what I’m going through, I am able to keep a higher perspective and that brings equilibrium to my mental health.”

In his speech, during last Thursday’s debate on mental health, Gavin Barwell said: “Having a mental health condition is nothing to be ashamed of. It is nothing to be kept secret and it’s high time that we drag the law of this land into the 21st Century”.

If the compassionate legislation he is bringing forward this week is eventually passed by Parliament, it is hoped individuals will feel freer to admit their mental health problems and more openly seek solutions. The honesty of several MPs in the debate suggests this might be the case.

Of course, medication will continue to be the solution that many seek.

But it is helpful to recognise the spiritual tools also available which can help meet – and in some cases defeat – the symptoms of depression.

This was originally published in The Independent as Are there mental tools that can help alleviate mental illness?

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