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The Power of Higher Powers

What psychiatrists are learning from their patients

Reprinted with permission from Schizophrenia Digest, Summer 2008

In 1979, Thelma Gordon made a request that was considered pretty strange back then: She wanted her church to find a way to welcome and support people who suffered from mental illness.Schizophrenia Digest Summer 2008 cover

The priest and the nun that led the congregation didn’t know what to do about the woman, who had schizophrenia herself. But Gordon persisted; she kept at them for years. Connie Rakitan, a member of the same church, remembers that “Thelma pestered the nun, and eventually the nun pestered me to do something about her request.”

Rakitan didn’t want to get involved with the mentally ill. For one thing, she found Gordon a little eccentric. For another, she believed all of the stigmas surrounding mental illness.   She was afraid.

“But in my day, you didn’t say no to a nun,” she says. So Rakitan and Gordon went to a local fast food joint for a chat. That meeting birthed a program for the mentally ill that continues to thrive to this day. Rakitan is still active as director of that Faith and Fellowship program, which is part of the Mental Health Ministries of the Archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness in Chicago, Illinois.

“It’s not a support group about mental illness,” Rakitan stresses, “otherwise it would give mental illness the centerpiece. The idea is to form relationships that are not about mental illness, but about our common journey in faith.”

The groups consist of 10 to 15 adults of all faiths; each has approximately equal numbers of members with a mental illness and volunteers from local churches. They meet semi-weekly as partners in prayer and socialization.

Rakitan is not a doctor. She only knows that since the program inspired by Thelma Gordon began, people have found it helpful in their recovery. Praying, talking, and doing arts and crafts together in a context of faith seems to add a welcome component to the lives of people with mental illness. “The very virtue of hope, that connection with the church, a place to express and explore one’s faith and even talk about crisis in faith, in a place that’s nonjudgmental and non-therapeutic, and make sense out of suffering, is very valuable,” she says

The benefits of faith

Meanwhile, in the field of medicine, psychiatrists might be on to something big. Not all, but many are adding a new weapon to their arsenal in the fight against the harmful effects of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and other forms of mental illness. It’s not a new pill: It’s what Thelma Gordon knew all along could help her—faith.

In many cases, religious beliefs appear to be associated with lower levels of hopelessness and with less depression. Mental health care professionals are acknowledging it’s time they paid attention to matters of their patients’ faith and spirituality, regardless of their own personal beliefs.

Rakitan has gotten to know countless people and their experiences with mental illness over the past 30 years, and says faith is often the only thing left after the onset of severe mental illness. “They are often estranged from their families. They don’t have jobs anymore. Many can’t drive a car anymore. They’ve lost so much.”

Some turn to the church because they don’t know where else to turn. Rakitan gives the example of a man who ran away from his boarding house in the middle of the night and showed up at the church. “We contacted [his] social worker and were able to convince the man, ‘Maybe your life situation isn’t good, but running away in winter at night without socks isn’t good.’ He ended up moving to a better residential setting.”

But how does faith really help? Is it about knowing a church is a building with open doors? Is it simply a means toward some sorely-missed social interaction, or is there really an element of the divine? If there is, how can we really know if the divine is making a difference?

Mind, body, and spirit

Traditionally, medicine hasn’t accepted or understood nonscientific solutions to problems it considers biological. Not only has the medical community failed to embrace the faith community as a partner in caring for the mentally ill, the feeling has been mutual.

When Chris Summerville was a teenager, he struggled with severe clinical depression that persisted throughout his adult life, often resulting in suicidal ideation. As a Christian, this caused him tremendous guilt. He thought he shouldn’t be experiencing such despair if he prayed hard enough. Summerville became an evangelical pastor at age 17 and continued that vocation for the next 25 years. In his last year as a pastor, he “came out of the closet” about his depression during a sermon.

“It was very awkward for the congregation,” he recalls. “Even though they were very loving, they were shocked that their spiritual leader would have existential despair.” That experience, says Summerville, was one reason he resigned as pastor in 1994.

Today, at age 55, Summerville continues to minister, but in new ways. He is the executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, interim chief executive officer (CEO) of the Canadian Schizophrenia Society, and on the board of directors of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Summerville has made it his life’s mission to alter the concept that mental illness can only be dealt with from a mind-body perspective.

“I know it’s radical for someone in my position to say this, but the biomedical model is deficient,” he says. “In Canada, Aboriginal people have taught us that if you want to talk to us about mental health, then talk to us about the mind, body, and spirit connection. The Eurocentric, biomedical model has proven to be deficient because of its exclusive emphasis just on biochemistry.”

Summerville and a growing number of his peers believe that faith is the number one missing element, “the forgotten dimension” in mental health services. But others are reluctant to address faith in a professional context, he says, because their issues of counter transference get in the way. If they don’t consider themselves spiritual, or don’t believe in discussing such issues, they will feel very uncomfortable when a consumer talks about spirituality.

“We just need to get over it,” Summerville says. “I mean, we’re able to talk about everything else—your blood tests, your bowel movements, your sex life—so we should be able to discuss your spirituality.”

Several medical publications have discussed the issue in recent years, including the Journal of Ethics in Mental Health and the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, each of which dedicated an entire issue to spirituality and recovery in 2007. Summerville attributes this to the recovery model, which has shifted care for the mentally ill from strictly passive—relying only on medicine and therapy—to a more active model that suggests people can recover meaning and process to their lives despite the effects of their illness.

“What’s fundamental to the recovery model is hope,” he says. “Hope that I can move beyond my illness; hope of recovering the things I lost. With the emphasis of hope, people have become more interested in the concept of spirituality in mental illness because hope is essentially a spiritual issue.”

Medication, says Summerville, accounts for 20 percent of the recovery experience. Eighty percent has to do with “personal medicine”—being at one with nature and creation, as well as spirituality. With personal medicine added to the mix, “consumers tell us they not only cope, but thrive in spite of bipolar [disorder] or schizophrenia.”

As an example, he points to Schizophrenia Digest CEO and founder Bill MacPhee, who has always spoken openly about the role faith has played in his own recovery. “Bill MacPhee is to be highly commended,” Summerville says. “He is at the forefront of teaching us the role of a healthy level of spirituality in the recovery process.”

Summerville believes in medication, but only as one pillar of recovery. “We know it in diabetes; we know it in AIDS; people with AIDS don’t bet all their money on pills.

They look at their friends, their relationships, their spirituality their nutrition, meditation…whatever gives them meaning and purpose and energizes them.”

Blind faith

Given the past turbulent relations between mental illness and religion, current objections are not surprising. Historically, behaviors caused by epilepsy or schizophrenia led to the belief that the affected individual was not ill but possessed by demons that had to be “cast out.” Some Pentecostal Christians still hold that belief today, and the Church of Scientology has published documents claiming there is no such thing as “mental illness,” and that psychiatry is a fraud.

Even among people who do believe in mental illness, there are objections to spiritual or religious involvement. “The concern would be that people can experience symptoms that involve quasi-religious or pseudo-spiritual content,” says Craig Rennebohm, who has been a United Church of Christ minister through the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle, Washington, for the past 20 years. He is referring to the religious delusions of some people with schizophrenia. Faith communities, he says, may see this simply as a religious struggle and try to pray people out of their illness when, in fact, the person would benefit enormously from medication. As for the medical community, it might view the problem purely as a matter of biology without any spiritual concerns.

“I think those extremes are not helpful,” he says. “Mind, body, and spirit are more complexly linked than that. Anytime we begin to experience some pain or struggle or woundedness or fragility, we will begin to raise some pretty profound and basic questions of a spiritual nature.”

Unlike cancer victims, who might have an existential crisis of “Why me?”, people with severe mental illnesses may have similar thoughts but distort them in bizarre ways that can be tremendously isolating. Rennebohm shares the story of a woman who was in a hospital but starting to come down from her symptoms. When she saw the chaplain she asked, “Am I God?” He responded that there’s a little bit of God in everyone but, no, he didn’t think she was God. And she said, “Oh, what a relief.”

Summerville encounters another potential difficulty to be mindful of: seeking support in a shame-based faith community. No one should feel ashamed about mental illness. “Unfortunately, a lot of churches don’t get it,” he says.

With so many obstacles, why do people withmental illness continue to ask their caregivers to address matters of faith? “It’s about finding strength for the journey,” says Summerville. “Just because things are hellish today doesn’t mean they will be hellish tomorrow. It’s the concept of hope, the expectation that I can get better and live beyond the devastation, learn how to manage my illness, have strength, and that I’m a person of worth and significance no matter what. I think the recovery model lends itself up for people to open themselves up to a higher power—God—whatever you want to call it.

Gordon’s legacy

Thelma Gordon, founding mother of the Faith and Fellowship program in Chicago, died several years ago in her late 70s from causes unrelated to her schizophrenia. Almost to the end, she actively participated in the program she helped found. Rakitan says Gordon found her experience with her new, more open-minded parish very helpful. “It fostered a sense of peace of mind,” she says. “And because of her leadership role, it gave her a sense of purpose, accomplishment, a sense of belonging, and [a] relationship with the church. Thelma had always gone to mass, but being part of this program gave her a more intentional connection.”

For anyone seeking a similar kind of spiritual fellowship and support, Rakitan recommends talking to someone who has a leadership role in a church— “someone who shares the conviction that the church needs to be doing something [for those with a mental illness]. It might or might not be the pastor, even if he’s a nice guy. It could be a deacon, head of the adult education committee, the peace and justice department— someone in a leadership role who really wants to make it happen.”

Michelle Morra is a freelance journalist, corporatewriter, and aspiring novelist who works from her home in Toronto, Canada.

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