Recovery from a mental disorder is experienced by many people as part of their spiritual journey. This was eloquently expressed by consumer advocate and Program Director of the Mental Health Division of Contra Costa County Jay Mahler. During a conversation with Dan Weisburd, editor of the CAMI Journal, Jay mentioned that he viewed his disorder as a spiritual journey. When Dan questioned how a devastating mental disorder could be a spiritual journey, Jay responded:
Regardless of what anyone else chooses to call it, that's what it's been for me. The whole medical vocabulary puts us in the role of a 'labeled' diagnosed victim. We are the ones whom they must skillfully attempt to fix, according to them. But as they go through trial and error, looking to see if anything they have to offer works at all to control your symptoms, it doesn't take a genius to realize they haven't got the answers. No clue about cures! And oh boy, those side effects! I don't say medications can't help, or that treatments won't have value.
But, what I do say is that my being aware that I'm on a spiritual journey empowers me to deal with the big, human 'spiritual' questions, like: "Dan! Why is this happening to me? Will I ever be the same again? Is there a place for me in this world? Can my experience of life be made livable? If I can't be cured can I be recovering. . . even somewhat? Has my God abandoned me?" Bottom line is, as victim of whatever it is, we who have it have to wonder whether what remains constitutes a life worth living. That's my spiritual journey, Dan, that wondering. That's my search. That's something I must do.
Sally Clay is an advocate and consultant for the Portland Coalition for the Psychiatrically Labeled, a group run by and for ex-psychiatric patients, has written about the important role that religious experiences played in her recovery following two years of hospitalization at the Yale-affiliated Hartford Institute of Living (IOL) while diagnosed with schizophrenia:
My recovery had nothing to do with the talk therapy, the drugs, or the electroshock treatments I had received; more likely, it happened in spite of these things. My recovery did have something to do with the devotional services I had been attending. At the IOL I attended both Protestant and Catholic services, and if Jewish or Buddhist services had been available, I would have gone to them, too. I was cured instantly-healed if you will-as a direct result of a spiritual experience.
While hospitalized, she had a powerful religious experience which led her to attend religious services. Many years later she went back to the to review her case records, and found herself described as having "decompensated with grandiose delusions with spiritual preoccupations." She complains that "Not a single aspect of my spiritual experience at the IOL was recognized as legitimate; neither the spiritual difficulties nor the healing that occurred at the end" (p. 92).
Clay is not denying that she had a psychotic disorder at the time, but makes the case that, in addition to the disabling effects she experienced as part of her illness, there was also a profound spiritual component which was ignored. She describes how the lack of sensitivity to the spiritual dimensions of her experience on the part of mental health and religious professionals was detrimental to her recovery. Nevertheless she has perserved in her belief that,
For me, becoming "mentally ill" was always a spiritual crisis, and finding a spiritual model of recovery was a question of life or death.