The first time I walked into a psychiatric unit as a chaplain, I was terrified of being mistaken for a patient. The click of the locked door behind me made me worry that maybe “craziness” is contagious. And yet I soon learned that I feel liberated in psychiatric units.
I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor, and extreme mental states are as common as rain in my family. As a child, I always suspected my family was the only one that experienced emotional suffering.
The medical model of mental disease tends to isolate us from each other. I believe that we learn more about ourselves and human nature when we understand our commonalities, and conceptualize mental distress and emotional suffering as occurring on a broad spectrum. I do not dispute that changes in brain chemistry cause terrible suffering to those we term “mentally ill.” I believe in the use of psychiatric medications, as well as therapy and spiritual care. However culture, personality, history, and spirituality impact our mental state equally strongly. For example, women in the 19th century who were afflicted by hysteria were suffering from a form of mental illness that was deeply embedded in both their own individual distress and in society’s suffering. This disease indicated a spiritual and cultural, as well as a physical, malady.
While few of us will experience what is considered severe mental illness or spend time in the under-funded psychiatric units that many of my clients cycle through, all of us have experienced an extreme mental state.
“The Spirituality of Madness” is reprinted from Zeek. The full article can be found here.