I did a short paper this past semester on Sylvia Plath and her presumed mental illness. People usually focus on her suicide and some of her more depressing poems when they speak about her work. However, I focused on some of her other great poems, such as Face Lift, which discusses the aging process and its emotional effects on women, and Strumpet Song which is a deeply empathic poem about a prostitute. In my paper I focused on her skill as a poet which, in my opinion, stemmed from her deep ability to empathize with the human condition. Was this deep level of compassion related to both her mental illness and her writing skills? Or was it gender-based, since, statistically, more women than men suffer from clinical depression – and because women’s health issues were routinely ignored or patronized in those days?
Because less was known about mental illness in Plath’s day, it isn’t clear what exactly she suffered from – whether it was depression or bipolar disorder. But, it got me to thinking about how we respond to mental illness as a society – and, specifically, how the spiritual community responds to mental illness.
In the old days, people assumed that the mentally ill were possessed with demons. Sadly, there are still many people who believe this and try to “pray away” mental health issues. There is still much we don’t know about the brain – which is a physical structure that interacts with but is separate from our souls and spirits. So, in light of my own ignorance but strong desire to be compassionate, I have come up with the following rules for myself when dealing with people I suspect are suffering from some sort of undiagnosed mental illness:
1) Know and believe that the person is made in the image and likeness of the Divine, regardless of whatever electronic misfiring might be going on in the brain’s circuitry.
2) Understand that my definition of “normal” is subject to my own interpretation and the influence of the cultural norms in which I was raised. (That which we call madness could make perfect sense in a different dimension of reality).
3) Realize that what might seem like mental illness could be the Ego’s dysfunctional reaction to pain – run amuck. People often make much more sense if and when we fully understand what they’ve been through.
4) Pray and hold the space for them to receive the help they need while practicing self-care. Compassion and kindness do not require us to be doormats. Place the oxygen mask on yourself first…
Anyway, this is a deep issue that requires much more contemplation. All I do know is that Love is the starting point for solving any and all societal problems!
In Peace and Love,