The Mental Health Pilgrimage

The Mental Health Pilgrimage

Since being diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 2004, I’ve been wondering if mental illness and religion mix. When thinking about my own life and the people I’ve met since my diagnosis, it seems that I’ve been on a pilgrimage through different religions in relation to my mental health. Some people do not believe Schizophrenia is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. These individuals sometimes do not realise that their beliefs can have an effect on someone’s mental illness.

While walking to Town Hall Station one day, I was stopped by a Scientologist. “Would you like to buy a copy of Dianetics?” she asked.

“No sorry,” I replied. “I have a Mental Illness, I don’t do religion.”

“Well that’s where you’re in luck,” she said. “If you read this book, all of your hallucinations will go away.” And with a convinced smile she informed me, “and you won’t need medication anymore.”

‘Could she even begin to understand how things were for people with Schizophrenia who were off their medication?’ is what was going through my mind.

I know from personal experience that if I were to stop taking my medication, I’d be talking to myself in continuous dialogue from the point I woke up to the point I went to sleep. Voices of paranoia yelling at me, targeting my insecurities, and telling me that the people I loved were out to hurt me. During my worst moments I was hearing people over my fence, verbally abusing, mocking, and criticizing me. That is what it was like for me before medication; it was a world of mass confusion. In my opinion, telling someone to read a book and go off their medication is really dangerous to that individual, as people with Schizophrenia are statistically more likely to self harm, than harm other people. The result could be devastating to their families as well as the person affected by the illness. With one in five people experiencing a mental illness in their lifetime, the results could be dangerous.

Some Roman Catholics I’ve met have been well informed on mental illness. One such person employed as a clinical mental health nurse, explained her belief as: “God doesn’t come down to change your car tyre, he gives people brains to cure illness and disease.” It may have been unethical for her to say it at the time, because she was a public servant, but from her 20 years experience in the mental health field, she would know when it was appropriate to talk about religion.This woman had a more sensible approach to religious beliefs and still believed in medicine. With the knowledge that there is currently no cure for Schizophrenia, she was educated to know that Schizophrenia is hallucinations of your five senses, plus delusions, yet she still had a strong religious background that did not conflict with her being a mental health worker.

Once I was working with a High Priest of the Latter-Day Saints in the Vineyards, in Coonawarra, South Australia. While walking through a Shiraz lot on a cold winter’s morning, lopping back dead vines in preparation for the picking season, he asked why I was away one day. After a short pause I told him that I was sick with Schizophrenia. He thought for a while, but when he suggested, “the voices could be evil adversaries cast out of heaven,” I decided that he probably wasn’t the best person to be talking to about my mental illness. The Priest’s suggestion was based upon his religious beliefs and did not account for mental health training and education. Whilst working in the vineyards my symptoms would over- exaggerate things that I’d done, taking small incidents and blowing them out of proportion. When the priest made the comment it could have led to a build up of delusions. Thus, the stress I felt after what he’d said could actually have made my symptoms worse.

I also met a Yogi once who had been on a pilgrimage around the world. She’d been to Iran, Israel, France, Turkey, India, England and many other places before she stopped in Australia. She had also once worked as a Mental Health Professional and had great insight into what was a misunderstood illness. But she could align this to her religion through her experience as a Yogi. She grew up around religious societies and with a very close sibling who had Bipolar Disorder. During our discussions she once shared a story about being approached by a woman in The Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She wondered if that woman was an angel. She described the woman as literally disappearing as quietly as she appeared. However, because of her relationship with her sibling she had a great insight into mental illness, and this insight did not conflict with her beliefs. She didn’t demonize the illness as so many others have.

I’ve come to believe that when it comes to mental health, the more informed you are, the more you are able to relate it back to your faith. This way science and religion can walk hand in hand.

Not fist to fist.

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