People with “mental disorders” have long been discriminated against in America. It is common knowledge that people with such disorders were, at one point in time, locked away in asylums and treated like (or in some cases, worse than) prisoners. One of the most misunderstood disorders, and the one which will be the focus of this paper, is bipolar disorder (formerly referred to as manic depressive syndrome). “Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months. This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly” (NAMI, 2011). The wisdom of the world states that bipolar disorder is a disease that someone will suffer with for the rest of their life, the treatment of which – especially in the United States – almost always requires medication. I am here to argue that bipolar disorder (and by proxy, other “mental disorders”) are primarily a spiritual malady that one can only be fully healed from by spiritual means, and that the insistence upon medication in the treatment of bipolar is a form of discrimination.
The first order of business is to lay out more fully the worldly, scientific perspective of bipolar disorder and the methods by which it is treated. According to a Veteran’s Administration of San Diego publication, bipolar affects over 10 million people in America and is found in men and women equally. Manic and/or depressive “episodes can last from days to months” (2012). Many people are unfamiliar with mania and find mania to be very frightful; the same publication defines mania as follows: “In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, feelings of increased energy, creativity, and euphoria are common. People experiencing mania often talk a mile-a-minute, sleep little, and are hyperactive. They may also feel all-powerful, invincible, or destined for success” (VAMC San Diego 2012). Jennifer Heintz, who leads a 4-week educational course on bipolar at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, CA, has said that diagnosis of bipolar disorder can be very difficult because people who suffer from bipolar can exhibit traits from all the other “mental disorders”. In a sense, it is a sort of “super” disorder. The VA publication is interesting in that it admits to that “while medication is a key element in the successful treatment of bipolar disorder, therapy, support, and education about the illness are also necessary…” Moreover it states, and this is very important, “the exact cause of bipolar disorder is not know[n]…” The scientific theory – and it is important to remember that science, by its own mechanics and definitions, can’t actually prove something to be true, though it certainly can be useful for learning about reality – is that “bipolar disorder is most likely caused by multiple factors that interact with each other to produce a chemical imbalance affecting certain parts of the brain” (VAMC San Diego 2012). This disorder – like many other “mental disorders” – is believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain because doctors have successfully employed chemicals which alter brain chemistry to treat the symptoms of the disorder. It is imperative to keep in mind that prevailing scientific wisdom views bipolar and other “mental disorders” as chronic conditions which require a lifetime treatment of medication. Put simply, according to the modern scientific mindset, there is no cure to bipolar or other “mental disorders;” there is no way to be healed of such disorders.
Historically, “mental disorder” has been used as a justification to discriminate against many different groups of people, from blacks to women. Baynton (2000) argues “opponents of political and social equality for women cited their supposed physical, intellectual, and psychological flaws, deficits…these flaws – irrationality, excessive emotionality…are in essence mental, emotional…disabilities.” People have used disability as a means to discriminate for a long time, and very few if any people have questioned the validity of discrimination on the basis of disability. Griscom outlines an important fact about being labeled as disabled: “Once a person is labeled helpless, there is no need to consult her wishes, consider her written communications, hear her testimony.” I know from personal experience – I’ve been in a psychiatric ward 4 times now for my bipolar diagnosis – that there is a power dynamic at work between doctor and patient, and that the patient’s testimony and wishes (such as the desire to be treated without medication) are often pushed aside because they have a “mental disorder”. Even the very term used – “mental disorder” – implies a fundamental problem with thinking and rationality. The thought that there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, which then causes a person to have faulty reasoning and faculties, makes it easy to discriminate against such people and throw out their testimonies. And indeed, as alluded to in the introduction, many people were simply thrown into asylums for their “mental disorders”. It is commonly known that after the asylums shut down, many were simply released into the streets, and “mental disorders” keep many people homeless. The problem with this labeling is explained by Tatum (1997) – “Even a member of the stereotyped group may internalize the stereotypical categories about his or her own group to some degree. In fact, this process happens so frequently that it has a name, internalized oppression.” Even though the scientific viewpoint admits that the root cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, and that a chemical imbalance is their best guess, patients may begin to internalize the message that they have a faulty brain incapable of reasoning properly and incapable of being in touch with reality without medication despite the fact there may be an alternative answer.
An alternative to medication based treatment is what I call faith based treatment. The Word of God, when studied and applied to one’s life, has a great stabilizing effect on one’s mind. There are many promises of healing in the Bible, and the idea is that we have been made whole by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us (if we have the faith to believe in this sacrifice). “[Jesus] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24 New King James Version). Moreover there are many promises in the scriptures that one could latch on to for empowerment. In 2nd Timothy chapter 1 verse 7, it reads “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (New King James Version). The promise of a sound mind here is especially pertinent to those who suffer from “mental disorders.” One reading this paper may wonder why I continue to place the phrase “mental disorder” in quotes – it is because I do not take ownership of having a disorder, or a disease, or a chemical imbalance in my brain. It is my personal belief that when Jesus walked the earth and cast out demons, he was healing people of a condition we now refer to as “mental disorders.” Much more so than any other malady we face as humans, “mental disorders” are primarily a spiritual disorder that requires spiritual treatment. For example, read the following description of Legion, a rather famous group of demons Jesus cast out of a man during his ministry on earth:
And when [Jesus] had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones. (Mark 5:2-5 New King James Version)
The inability of this man to be bound harkens back to manic symptoms – especially having high enough energy to break his bindings and his shackles – and the crying out and cutting himself with stones relates to depressive symptoms. It is entirely possible this man could have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in our modern age. Jesus was able to cast demons out of him because Jesus was the living Word of God, as it says in John 1. Jesus makes a very important statement about why he came to this earth in John 18:37: “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (New King James Version). Jesus is making a poignant statement that flies in the face of conventional wisdom; he is saying that there is an absolute truth and that it can be known. He says elsewhere in the scripture that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32, New King James Version).
One area where spiritual treatment and scientific thought dovetail is in the concept of therapy, and specifically “cognitive behavioral therapy” or CBT. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), CBT is “an empirically supported treatment that focuses on patterns of thinking that are maladaptive and the beliefs that underlie such thinking” (Warman & Beck, 2003). In the words of one of the instructors at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, the goal of CBT is to change one’s thinking. This is precisely what John the Baptist and later Jesus call people to do when they preach in the Bible “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” According to Pastor Rob Glickman of Horizon Park Chapel, to repent means literally to change your thinking. One could get very philosophical and talk about the nature of thoughts and where they come from, and that’s a little outside the scope of this paper, but suffice to say that thought life is extremely important to Jesus. He had an important teaching about the location of the Kingdom of God that relates to this: “Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21, New King James Version) This is a powerful statement that really demonstrates the primacy of thought in the Christian life. Paul expounds on this view in one of his epistles: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…“ (2 Corinthians 10:4-6, New King James Version). Spiritual warfare is cast in terms of arguments and debate – matters concerned with thought and the mind, the very heart of “”mental disorder”s!”
This paper has only scratched the surface of the issue of “mental disorders” and discrimination in America. The idea that one’s brain is defective or has a chemical imbalance becomes internalized and people become disempowered and, as a result, “disabled.” But this is only one worldview; one could choose to have faith in the scriptures and the promises of Jesus and be set free by the truth. As I stated before, “”mental disorders” are primarily a spiritual condition and require spiritual treatment via the Word of God; medication can help manage the symptoms of the disorder but will never address the root cause of what’s really causing a person to suffer. The battle is over the thought life of a person, and medications can certainly help a person think more clearly, but true healing and a true cure (as opposed to management of the symptoms of a “chronic illness”) can come only from belief in the truth.
Baynton, D. C. (2000). Disability and the justification of inequality in american history. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (pp. 94-102). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Griscom, J. L. (n.d.). The case of sharon kowalski and karen thompson. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (pp. 468-476). New York, NY: Worth Publishing.
NAMI. (2011). What is bipolar disorder?. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Mental_Illnesses/Bipolar1/Home_-_What_is_Bipolar_Disorder_.htm
Tatum, B. D. (1997). Defining racism “can we talk?”. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class and Gender in the United States (pp. 123-130). New York, NY: Worth Publishing.
VAMC San Diego. (2012). STEP educational workbook. San Diego: Veteran’s Administration
Warman, D. M., & Beck, A. T. (2003, June). Cognitive behavioral therapy. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Inform_Yourself/About_Mental_Illness/About_Treatments_and_Supports/Cognitive-Behavioral_Therapy.htm