The importance of spiritual support in recovery—something I know well
More than 40 years ago, faced with crippling postpartum depression, Barbara was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward and found the experience very disturbing. Having internalized the stigma against mental health, she felt she was weak and somehow a damaged human being.
After several years of this unhappy existence, she went back into therapy to understand what changes she needed to make in her life, and she started doing things she never thought she would do. She started to meditate. She started to embrace spirituality. To her surprise, it not only helped her heal, but it also led her to a new career focused on helping others.
I didn’t realize how incredibly lucky I was when I first went into the psychiatric ward for postpartum depression. I happened to get a psychiatrist on duty that had a very active spiritual life. Later, when I went back into therapy with him to deal with the unhappiness in my life, he influenced me to try to make spirituality an important part of my life. And because I did, I started making a lot of progress in my recovery from depression. I am still with that same psychiatrist these many years later.
At first, Barbara was skeptical about using spirituality to address her mental illness.
I had a background in computer science. I was a logical person, and I was totally skeptical about meditation and spirituality. When he first suggested it, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’
But Barbara gave spirituality a chance. She was determined to try anything that could help her with her depression.
I just trusted him, and it started to make a big difference to me. I realized that there was really something to this. Here was something that has been very important to human existence that I had not ever recognized.
Since that time, many years ago, spirituality has been central to Barbara’s therapy for depression and her career, although therapy, medication, and other lifestyle changes have also helped her. She took early retirement from her job as a computer software engineer and studied to become an ordained minister. For years, her ministry has focused on addressing mental health issues.
Sometimes, when I lead a worship service or serve as a guest speaker in another congregation, I will tell people about my own experience with mental health problems. It’s not because I think my experience is so incredibly unique, but because I know when a ‘respected person’ stands up in front of the congregation and says this happened to me, it gives them permission to accept whatever it is in themselves.
In addition to her role as a minister, Barbara works in a peer support center where she helps individuals with mental health conditions share activities, support each other, and find encouragement for their therapy and treatment. She is also a published author. Her recent book, “Held: Showing Up for Each Other’s Mental Health,” offers resources for congregations on helping individuals who have mental health problems. The book also explains the importance of spiritual support in recovery—something she knows well.
When speaking as a guest minister, at the end of the church service where I share my story and information about how people heal from mental health problems, I ask people to rise in body or spirit if they or a loved one of theirs is living with a mental health condition. Every time, somewhere between 80% and 100% of the people stand up. Everyone looks around, and they can’t believe it. They then realize it is safe to start sharing their stories with each other.
I think that sharing my story sort of unlocks the ability for them to acknowledge these issues within themselves, and that’s such an important part of recovery. This kind of public witness is the biggest stigma-buster that I have discovered.