Mental illnesses are more spiritual than physical – Genieve Nnaji. This comment by the popular Nollywood actress has caused some controversy and debate about mental ill-health and what it is all about. The attention and conversations are very welcome and we will attempt to clarify some misconceptionsaround it. Is it only those who smoke weed or take drugs that can suffer from mental illness? Could it be that mental illnesses are caused by spiritual attacks? Are the popular movie portrayals in Nollywood, which depict mental illnesses as conditions that can never be treated in hospitals, and must be referred to spiritual (traditional or faith-based) healers correct? Is there any role for spirituality in mental illness and recovery?
In reality, our thoughts, feelings, emotions and behavior are simply a function of certain chemicals in our brains. Thus, when we feel happy or sad; when we think about a problem and are able to arrive at a solution or make up our minds about what to do; when we want to remember something and we think hard and suddenly remember it – we are simply using our brains and certain chemicals are working hard to allow us perform these functions. Thus when there are abnormal changes in the levels of these brain chemicals, it affects the thinking processes, the feelings of happiness or sadness (emotions), memory, judgement and behavior of the affected person.
Mental health challenges often arise from a change in the level of these brain chemicals and can be correctly identified, and treated with the help of drugs that correct the level of the abnormality and restore normal balance. Once this is restored, such individuals recover fully and can live their normal lives. However, in some cases, they will also need to continue taking their drugs in order to ensure that the levels of the affected chemicals remain normal on an ongoing basis. They will also benefit from regular clinic attendance for follow-up reviews by the psychiatrist.
This is very similar to what happens in persons with diabetes for example. Persons with diabetes are unable to tolerate or utilize glucose maximally because a chemical known as insulin is not working well or the levels are not adequate. Thus, such persons usually would need to take medications for the rest of their lives and change their diets in order to control the blood sugar. In very severe cases, they may need to be receiving daily insulin injections in order to help their body utilize glucose properly. This is in addition to going to clinic regularly for check-up and checking their blood and urine sugar levels periodically.
Thus, mental health challenges are no different from those of other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension with respect to the fact that they are treatable with medications; but with the requirements of regular clinic follow-up visits; and religiously taking their medications as may be necessary. It is therefore, a misconception that such persons cannot recover again or that they have spiritual problems without a medical solution.
Is this to say that there is no role for spirituality? No that is not the case. Indeed, having a belief system may be supportive with coping with challenges and recovery, but it may also be a stressor and trigger in some others. But the concern frequently is that when people talk about spirituality and having faith, it is usually bandied as a protective factor which shields one from mental health challenges. So, if you genuinely have faith and are strong in your faith, you should not suffer from a mental health challenge.
The flip side of that line of reasoning is that when someone with faith then suffers from a mental health issue, they blame themselves for not being strong enough. And others in the congregation may also view it as a weakness. Thus, it compounds the problem and worsens the secrecy, shame and stigma associated with mental health challenges. Meanwhile, does having faith and being spiritual mean that you can’t have diabetes? Or hypertension? Or be involved in a car accident? So why is it only mental health problems that faith and spirituality should protect you from?
Even more worrisome, is where people refuse to seek for medical treatment for mental health issues and prefer to seek only spiritual interventions. My appeal is that the two options should not be mutually exclusive. If your faith and spirituality is very important to you and you think it is a strong factor, then pray for recovery. But at the same time, please go for, and receive treatment from mental health professionals. If we had a diagnosis of cancer for instance and require surgery, I would like to believe that we will go for the surgery and support the process with prayers. That appears to be a more reasonable middle path to choose in the event of mental health issues too.
DR JIBRIL ABDULMALIK
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 17th March 2022