"New Thought and Mental Illness"

by Dr. susan Nettleton

Delivered at the 1992 International New Thought Alliance Conference


I'm very pleased that I was asked to participate in this program today that focuses on a topic that has fascinated me for years--New Thought and Mental Illness. It is an important topic because mental illness is a vast public health problem in 1992. Mental and emotional disorders afflict more Americans than any other category of disabling illnesses. The National Institute of Mental Health states that 35 million Americans have some form of mental illness in any given 6 months; of these, 10 million fall into the category of the chronically mentally ill. It is estimated that 1 in 4 families in America has to cope with a mentally ill family member. So think about your home city, and your congregation--the odds are that 1 in 4 families that you know struggles with mental illness. That is a lot of suffering. It is a significant problem made more difficult by the times in which we live, and there are no quick answers to mental illness. Because of all this, any contribution that New Thought can make in our understanding, healing, and ministering to the mentally ill is important.

Probably the greatest difficulty that the mentally ill face is the stigma that still exists and the incredible amount of ignorance about what mental illness is. This stigma and ignorance is rampant in traditional churches. Studies show that 40-42% of Americans first seek out their minister or rabbi when mental illness strikes. Yet these spiritual professionals were ranked as the least helpful among the helping agencies or individuals. (One middle aged gentleman attending a church support group in Albuquerque for the first time told the group, “I've been to 5 churches. Four of them told me I am possessed by the devil because I have schizophrenia.”) If we are to reach out to the mentally ill the first barrier we have to conquer is our own misunderstanding of mental illness. Mental illness is confusing enough as it is but perhaps more confusing to people with a New Thought background.

We have a very clear assumption in New Thought that the solution to illness and life's problems is a change of consciousness. The instrument that we use to change consciousness is thought. Yet, in mental illness we are presented with a dilemma---how can a mentally ill person change consciousness to solve the problem when the very instrument that one needs is the thing that is damaged and diseased?

The simplistic idea that the mentally ill can just undo their illness by a choice in thinking is a serious misunderstanding of the problem. It leads of course to a subtle blame of the ill---if they really wanted to be more functional, then they would; since they aren't, then they must have chosen not to be, therefore there is no point in my interfering with them.

Such thinking of course provides us with a rationale to continue to avoid that which is awkward, painful, and confusing. This does not mean that New Thought has nothing to offer the mentally ill---potentially, it has a great deal---but we have to be more knowledgeable about mental illness.

I'd like to spend a few moments talking about “What is mental illness?” Mental Illness is a term used for a group of illnesses that cause severe disturbances in thinking, feeling and relating. They result in substantially diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. We are talking about a group of illnesses, each with different symptoms, different courses, different psychiatric treatment, but sharing the disturbances I mentioned above.

The more severe disorders of schizophrenia and the affective disorders, which include mood disorders, bi-polar disorders, and depression, afflict 7% of the population (although depression of various types runs as high as 20% in this country---it is estimated that depression costs this country $27 billion annually in lost productivity). The affective disorders occur at the rate of 6 persons in 100, and are a major cause of suicide. Schizophrenia affects 1 in 100 persons. Anxiety disorders, though often thought of as less severe, can be crippling and affect about 13 million people in America. Two-thirds of the mentally ill live in the community, most often with their families. However it is estimated that 30-50% of the homeless population are mentally ill. And really these are conservative definitions of mental illness---if we expand our definition to include drug addiction and other personality disorders, our numbers would be much higher.

Our ignorance of mental illness has fostered many misconceptions and myths such as the belief that schizophrenia has to do with a "split personality," that the mentally ill are prone to violence or that bad parenting is the cause of mental illness. There is a tendency to lump all the illnesses together, whereas in actuality we are dealing not just with several different types of illnesses but also a spectrum of illness. For example, someone can suffer from depression and still maintain a job and family but have lost their vitality and interest in life, and another person can be profoundly paralyzed, unable to mobilize the energy to get out of bed and perform the barest minimum of self-care. In schizophrenia we have had a reductionistic, but sometimes useful, rule of 3's. Out of new schizophrenics, 1/3 can recover to the point of never or rarely have another psychotic episode, 1/3 will respond to medical treatment and do fine on medication with occasional relapses, and 1/3 remain minimally responsive to medical treatment with a the possibility of continued deterioration over time. Given this kind of course, it is possible that we are dealing with more than one type of illness---in other words mental illness is complex because human beings are complex.

Because of all this it is important to remember that there is a difference between looking at an individual and looking at a large group of people who suffer from similar symptoms. We can speak in generalities and trends and that has its usefulness, but the individual remains the individual who may or may not fulfill the usual course of things.

So, what causes mental illness? In our church in Albuquerque I teach an 8 week course on overcoming depression. I usually spend the first hour discussing the various factors that contribute to depression. And that is just scratching the surface of one of the disorders we are looking at today. We don't have the time to talk about this in depth, but just as an overview---as I said, human beings are very complex, and when we are talking about illness that affects thought, feelings, and relatedness and our ability to function in life, we are talking about a pervasive thing. My approach is to look at all the various aspects of who we are as human beings. We are a body, we are a feeling nature, we are an intellect (that is the realm of belief, perception, cognition), we are also social beings---we live in a social context, and we are spiritual beings. To answer what causes mental illness we really have to look at all 5 of these levels of our experience. New Thought has a tendency to look at just 1 of the 5---the realm of thought and belief. It is not that thought and belief are unimportant, but as I said earlier to focus on that exclusively is to set up an impossible situation for the mentally ill because the instrument of thought is severely impaired.

Also as an aside here, you can teach the mentally ill how to think in more constructive ways. This has proven highly effective in depression and in certain anxiety disorders. It is one of the things I emphasize in my classes. You can teach a schizophrenic how to think as well but that is a much more arduous task, and requires support and intervention in the other levels of experience as well.

We don't have time to cover all the implications of this today, perhaps some of the comments and questions will let me know your specific interests but one aspect I have to emphasize and that is the physical. Mental Illness has physical roots. There is no question that schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, some types of unipolar depression and severe obsessive compulsive disorders are brain diseases.

Linus Pauling once said behind every crooked thought there is a crooked molecule. Of course in New Thought we teach that behind every crooked molecule there is a crooked thought. The argument can actually be a kind of chicken or egg problem that goes nowhere. Brain chemistry is extremely complex and subtle, and not well understood. But there is a large body of research that supports these so-called mental illnesses as being some malfunctioning of the connections between brain cells and the neurochemical processes that control thought, that connect one thought with another, that process incoming information, run it through past experience, integrate sensory stimuli and translate information into communication. This understanding of the brain is very important because from it we get medications, and psychiatric medications are effective. They are not always effective, and they are not without complications; they can have devastating complications, but when they do work, they are life saving and life giving. And when they work they can, as I often tell people, “keep the bottom from falling out.” They can give enough presence of mind that someone can begin to learn new skills whether that be spiritual skills or social skills or thinking and problem solving skills, or emotional skills or job skills.

With all this in mind, the question becomes what can New Thought offer the mentally ill and their families? The first and most important task from New Thought or anybody else is to help dispel the ignorance and stigma. To dispel the ignorance we may have to become more aware of the kinds of things I have been talking about. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is a very effective organization which provides information on mental illness and offers support for families. It is a grassroots organization that was formed by families and patients and has initiated a number of creative programs and been a lobbying organization as well. They have a specific program which is their religious outreach network aimed at educating clergy and promoting the strengths of churches to give support to the mentally ill. I have information in the newsletter and such here for anyone who would like that. And I brought a few of their brochures. Their current strategy for educating clergy is to have individuals from NAMI meet with local ministers to talk to them about their understanding of mental illness.

New Thought potentially has a lot to offer in terms of dispelling stigma, because we teach the inherent value of the individual, the freedom of the individual, and the divinity, and therefore the dignity of the individual. Regardless of appearance, we see the inherent dignity. Theologically this is a real strength; there is an acceptance someone new to the teachings can sense. Someone new to a church may not of course sense that same acceptance by the people who are in that church, because as human beings the people have not really integrated the teachings, have they? And the mentally ill may be inappropriate. That gives me the opportunity to make another aside...You know, it really is okay to set limits on behavior. When dealing with the mentally ill you may well need to set limits on behavior. There are certain things they may have to refrain from doing if they are going to be in social relationships or in a communal worship service. To set limits does not take away dignity. It is not a rejection. Rather it is an affirmation of competency. It is saying that I believe you have the competency, the wherewithal to learn to be appropriate here. Now we have to have some sensitivity as well because someone who is acutely psychotic may not be able at that time to control their behavior. That does not mean they can never control it. It may mean they need to be seeking medical treatment if they are out of control.

New Thought teachings also offer the mentally ill and their families unlimited possibilities. Because we do not lock an individual into the negative expectations of statistics or prognosis, we offer the possibilities for healing, and for a satisfying life no matter what they have been told. This is a wonderful thing, a ray of hope in a great deal of negativity that surrounds mental illness. There is a careful balance required here though because we can push too far ahead with our faith, leaving the family or the patient alone to wrestle with the facts---the suffering, the stigma, the devastating effects of the illness as it continues, the need for medical intervention, and all the stresses that brings.

New Thought offers a spiritual value system that is what many people seek when they face calamity. Dreams can be shattered by mental illness---for example, the hope of a family that their child who has always been a math whiz will become an engineer and then he is struck with schizophrenia, has to leave college and never returns. Part of the healing may include rethinking what is really important. It may include letting go, letting our loved ones be who they are, not who we wanted them to be. Finding meaning and satisfaction in our live even when it fails to live up to our expectations is a basic human task---for all of us. Spiritual values open the way.

New Thought offers powerful prayer support. When I say prayer support I don't mean just the prayers for healing of the disease. There is a temptation, and the very construct of disease that I have been educating you about reinforces this, a temptation to think that the solution is to somehow fix the brain or the personality or whatever so that the mentally ill can be "normal"---that is, be like us. So that they can fit in to the social structure, function like "everyone else." But if the social structure were more flexible, less rigid, less judging, less threatened by the different---some of the people we call mentally ill would do just fine. Mental health has been defined as "feeling comfortable about yourself, feeling right about others, while meeting the demands of life.” The mentally ill have the same mental health goals as the rest of us, but they often have a great deal of difficulty achieving them. They need relationships, friends, they need housing, they need jobs, they need income, and activity that gives them a sense of contributing to the community around them ---"fixing the brain" is not the only solution. In my experience over the years of praying for very disturbed patients, I learned that the most effective prayers where not for “healing the disease" but for “healing the life.” When I opened to the idea that this person as they are is the very expression of God, and that their individual life was inseparably connected to the wholeness of life and the fullness life, that nothing can interfere with or diminish the life that they are, that they are free with the freedom of God, free to live a life, I found some very interesting things happening. I found housing opening up for them in unexpected ways, I found that what seemed like impossible red tape, bureaucratic blocks to their getting access to income support and other programs dissolved, I found myself when I was the treating physician seeing the medication issue in a new way---making adjustments I hadn't really considered before, I found the family starting to relax and being more willing to get involved, I found that they started discovering opportunities to go have fun with people and they developed the courage to do it---in other words, life opened up. I wasn't treating for all these things to happen; it's much more open-ended than that. So don't discount or limit or constrict the prayer support-- it is a very real thing.

Well, there are other possibilities that churches can offer in terms of programming if you feel called to such a ministry. I'd be happy to share some more thoughts on that, and as I said I have information on programs that have been started elsewhere.