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Buddhism and Mental Health

edited August 2008 in Buddhism Today
I posted before about Buddhism and psychology and had an interesting discussion. Now I would like to add to that by focussing on mental health. There are so many directions to go into that I am not sure which one to begin with. Perhaps making it more specific would be one way.

I am in the field of mental health in more ways than one. Right now I am in the helping end. And have been for a while. But I have also been on the "other side" as someone in need of help. I was diagnosed with mental illnesses 10 years ago and have been in treatment ever since. Boy, could I tell you stories.

Along the way, I found that taking refuge was sometimes literally that, a refuge from unbearable suffering of the most concrete kind. Though I don't expect my clients to follow the same path, I will follow it in order to be able to help them through their dark nights of the soul.

It is important to me to engage in openness about mental health issues. They are profoundly misunderstood, even by professionals, and sadly often by Buddhists too. And I hope that my experience someday helps others know that you can live through and with these kinds of conditions and beyond.


  • edited May 2008
    Here are some details. Caveat lector! Read with caution (triggering material).

    I have seen many discussions of suffering. Sometimes people get carried away with abstractions. What is dukkha and all. When it is all around us and everywhere and palpable. So to counter that tendency toward abstraction I will provide some lived experiences that are concrete, embodied, real.

    I have experienced being sexually assaulted many times, physically assaulted many times, tortured on a few occasions, confined, bound, isolated, alone. The world is a pretty hostile and mean one in truth. There is not much protection out there for the vulnerable. And there is a great deal of harm.

    As someone who has suffered from mental illnesses, no doubt caused by this treatment, I have also met countless others who have been through these types of abuses. It is heart wrenching. And yet it goes on. And is present for so many. And sometimes is never overcome.

    I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, severe psychotic depresssion, and borderline personality disorder. Quite a volatile mix. These illnesses had their own intense suffering with them. I was self-destructive and put myself in the way of more harm because I did not know how to protect myself and practice self-care. So even more harm was done to me, physically, sexually, and mentally, sometimes right in the middle of a hospital by those supposed to be taking care of me. It was horrifying really. I have attempted suicide more than a dozen times and came near death or even died twice. I have been hospitalized in rather inhumane conditions more times than I can even count. The use of barbaric restraints and isolation techniques, even physical forces, still exists, even in intensive care units and emergency rooms where life and death are an issue.

    So the harm and suffering is real and perpetuated everyday all over the place. I used to think that was all there was. That there were no decent human beings because I had no evidence of it. That in turn left me weary of the world and its unbearable cruelty. So I would cut myself, take pills, and yes try to kill myself, anything to put an end to it.

    It was not until I discovered Buddhism (only 16 years ago) that I had some sense that maybe there was indeed another way for the world to be. But unfortunately, it was not until about 5 years ago that I saw actual evidence of decent behavior. A tiny act of kindness. And then I had some hope restored. I remember being confined in a hospital, at that point so beyond despair that I didn't even have the energy to be suicidal, I just wouldn't get out of bed, eat, talk, or anything so I got dragged off once again. There we were forced to watch a video about learning to meditate as a relaxation technique. And there were pictures of nature on the screen. I suddenly began to weep silently ending my catatonia. The world was so beautiful, but all I felt was pain. It was that moment that I began to heal. The tiny act of kindness was compassion for myself. And with it the nearly simultaneous realization that we all are suffering and are not separate. It was then that meditation ceased to be a "technique" and I began to practice.
  • edited May 2008
    Well what I can tell you is that both my psychologist and psychiatrist are venturing into Buddhism as a resource to enhance their practices.
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited May 2008
    "Physician - heal thyself!"

    A case of them putting their money where their mouths are....?
  • BrigidBrigid Veteran
    edited May 2008
    Dear Island,

    Thank you for these extraordinary and brave posts. Thank you for sharing them and thank you for surviving the horrors to end up helping others through their suffering. We can so easily become overwhelmed by the cruelty of this world and those who understand this and devote their time and energy to helping others are rare and precious.

    I can certainly attest to the fact that Buddhism has been the best medicine I've ever received and has helped my mental health more than all the doctors I've seen over the years combined. I remember vividly being at the peak of my suffering and knowing there was a healthy way out but not being able to get to it. It felt like a block in my brain behind which was the simple answer, an answer I already knew but negative experiences had blocked my access to it. Studying and practicing Buddhism removed the block almost instantly and allowed me access to negative thought patterns that I could change. I still have a lot of work ahead of me but now I know the areas I need to work on and I have the tools to do so. Or the medicine, really. I have the doctor, the medicine and the health care providers to administer the medicine and I'm getting better every day.

    There is an answer, a way out of our suffering, and we don't need to achieve enlightenment in order to experience that healing. We can change ourselves right here and now and improve our mental health drastically while on the road to enlightenment. I know and understand this truth because I've experienced it. In fact, I experience it every day.

    I'm so glad you found Buddhism, Island, and the healing that comes from study and practice. As humans we have a tendency to fall back into bad habits and very often the journey is three steps forward and two steps back. But it's progress nonetheless and we can take comfort in that fact.

    Thank you again for your honest and brave posts and I'm sending you much love and gentle hugs.

  • edited May 2008
    There is a whole field now of writing, seminars, teachings, and so on for mental health practitioners on how to incorporate Buddhism into their work. My school requires spiritual practice and Eastern course work as part of training to become a psychotherapist. There are a handful of others as well. And the Zen sangha that I attend is for mental health care practitioners primarily. The outreach programs through the sangha network health care providers in the area to offer free counseling for returnees from war and their loved ones. So there are many psychotherapists that are also actively Buddhist or at least open minded about the teachings and practice.

    I tend to talk about things from a more discursive point of view or style. I wanted to offer something a little different. I believe in this kind of honesty. I believe it is healing and healthy. And that others can learn from it too. I did not feel brave because I did not feel fear. I felt a wish to connect in a genuine, authentic way. I am glad that I did, if it makes a difference for anyone.
  • edited May 2008
    Hi island

    Thanks for posting this. As many here know, I suffer from bipolar so am all too well aware of the debilitating effects of mental illness. I find Buddhism to be a calming influence despite the tug of my old Christianity when I get a bit manic. Any kind of illness gives us am opportunity to release ourselves (and, perhaps others) from a degree of suffering. Unlike most physical illnesses, mental illnesses cannot be cured but they can be controlled with drugs, and possibly Buddhist (or at least meditative) practice.

    Just my 2c
  • edited May 2008
    I am not bipolar myself so I do not have first hand knowledge, but many many of the people I have met or known do suffer from bipolar disorder. And many of them are disabled or have been for periods of time. It is debilitating. I am sorry to hear this. May you find the support you need.

    While it may be in some sense true that mental illnesses are not "curable," they are certainly treatable. For instance, borderline personality disorder is considered an incurable condition. And when given the diagnosis there were even those who refused to try to treat it. However, this turned out to not be completely accurate. I have had no symptoms of borderline for many years. With proper medications and intensive psychotherapy, the symptoms all but disappeared.

    Now I do not need to take the medications that were prescribed to deal with those symptoms. I take something for anxiety, left over from PTSD, which can get triggered at times, but is also no longer present in the way that it was. And my depression, except for little slumps, is also all but gone.

    So there is recovery. It has taken a lot of work for someone like me. I have been in analysis 3x a week for 9 years with a psychiatrist. And I do daily self-analysis and self-care. Have read up on the literature and become acquainted with the details of each condition and mental illness in general. The important thing to remember is that YOU are NOT your illness.
  • edited May 2008
    There is a growing list of materials on the intersection of Buddhism and psychology that covers some ground but is still very new and necessarily limited in scope for now. And it remains an open question whether or not Buddhism can work with more Western approaches to the mind. The systems are quite different in truth although many have worked hard to show how they either can work together or work in tandem. It is fascinating, but highly speculative.

    One thing I see missing from the picture is a more broad notion of the individual within a social context. The tendency to pull out the individual as if separate is a very particular cultural one, very present in Western cultures that seem to eschew interconnection and interdependence. In America there is a the myth of the rugged individual who is responsible for his fate, who wills things, and has his will be done. But that is only a myth, and a rather loaded one.

    In truth things are much more complicated. We don't always know what we are doing, or what what we are doing does. Hence the outcome is unpredictable because we have limited knowledge. And that is true for all of us, whether the label mentally ill applies or not. There is always a profound mixture of phenomena, needs, emotions, unconscious, conscious, memory, intention, lapses. So the very notion of pinpointing exact responsibility and intention might be something best left alone.

    To make it more complex, the individual is never really individual in the first place, having been influenced by social, cultural, and other omnipresent conditionings. The individual exists in a matrix of relations. Those relations, past, present, future, have a huge deal to do with what actually happens. One writer who makes this very clear and present is R. D. Laing, who was a psychiatrist in a way against psychiatry. Despite his many shortcomings, he makes a passionate, vivid plea for us all to wake up and see what we are doing, especially to each other and to ourselves. His sense was that society itself is sick and is in need of radical healing. He went so far as to say that someone who has a psychotic break is in fact on a voyage to greater sanity, having rejected the insanity of the "normal" world. And he did work to foster safe journeys for those deemed psychotic so they were not treated by dehumanizing methods that still are in practice even in "civilized" countries. Confinement, restraints, physical force, isolation, and required medication.

    While I accept the term mental illness, it is just a shorthand and convenience for me to describe those who are suffering in certain ways. In my experience, talking to so many who are mentally ill, I have found that even the most disturbed make sense if you really listen. And unfortunately that sense is that the world doesn't make sense to them. This is often, most often sadly, due to the harm done to them by the world at large. Such deep levels of harm that it is unspeakable and unbelievable. Often when I listen, I have a switcheroo happen. The person who is supposedly mentally ill suddenly comes to the foreground as sane and decent, whereas the supposedly sane person that did them harm becomes the truly ill person. The suffering on all sides is overwhelming. Buddhism can speak to that in a number of ways, without passing judgement or laying blame.
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited May 2008

    Interesting post. I think that you make some excellent points regarding the "individual," especially when you point out that, "... the individual is never really individual in the first place, having been influenced by social, cultural, and other omnipresent conditionings." The way I have come to look at it, the Buddha's teachings on not-self and dependent co-arising basically denies that anything like a closed-system, biological entity exists; therefore, an individual is not a closed-system since they interact with their surroundings and vice versa. In essence, being an open-system, there is no way to truly pull out the individual as being something separate, and trying to do so neglects much of what makes the individual an individual by rejecting the inherent interdependence of their existence. In my opinion, I think that Buddhism can work hand in hand with more "Western" approaches to the mind and, in the end, help modern psychology to deal with human [mental] suffering in new and creative ways.

  • edited May 2008
    What do you think about this article from today's New York Times?


    The article describes the mindfulness meditation technique as being inspired by Zen practices, but the description sounds more like a Theravadan insight meditation technique to me.
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited May 2008
    I agree.
  • BrigidBrigid Veteran
    edited May 2008
    I thought it was a pretty good, balanced article. I've used Kabat-Zin's book "Full Catastrophe Living" in which he describes his work with people who suffer from chronic pain by using his particular brand of mindfulness meditation and it has helped me enormously. (Chronic pain shrinks the brain, believe it or not, and meditation helps to reduce that shrinking.) My meditation practice was initiated at the insistence of my doctor before I even came to Buddhism as a way to manage the physical pain as well as the panic disorder. It's the best medicine I've ever found and I shudder to think of the mess I'd be without it.
  • JerbearJerbear Veteran
    edited July 2008
    I'm working through that book slowly. My problem is I like to read way too much and too many things. I did not know that about the brain. Now you make me want to put down my two other books and pick that one back up.

    I'm sorry to report that I can relate to surving physical, mental and sexual abuse. I was unable to get help until my mid 30's since physicians thought I was medication seeking. I had been sober 11 years and still having doctors thinking I wanted to get "high". I ended up having to tell a physician "3 options: I drink, I commit suicide, or you put me on antidepressants and help me get help for a debilitating depression." I'm glad to hear that you are able to live relatively med free. I've not been so lucky and will have to be on antidepressants for the long term. It helps me to live. Buddhism is part of self care for me as I am engaging in my own choices for "spirituality" and what makes sense to me. Meditation does help with the anxiety which I have less and less often. Good to hear someone else has thrived in spite of all that had happened.
  • edited August 2008
    There was an article about Mindfulness Meditation for mental health in today's Globe and Mail (Toronto newspaper). They're doing a relapse prevention study on depression patients - 1/3rd will stay on their medication, 1/3rd will go on placaebo, 1/3rd take a mindfulness meditation course. It'll be interesting to read their conclusions in several months' time.

    Meditating through mental illness
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