Spirituality and religion mattered to many of the people we spoke to. Spirituality means different things to different people, but is concerned with experiencing and appreciating the sacred within or beyond the material world. Religion is generally a more structured belief system, involving emotion, morality, and a sense of identity and community. We spoke to people of different faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, New Age and Rastafarianism, as well as to people who did not identify with any particular religion, but who valued their spirituality nonetheless. Other people said spirituality played no part in their life, or just didn’t discuss their spirituality or religion in our conversation.
Many people noted a link between religion or spirituality and their mental health. In response to unusual experiences some people had learnt kinds of prayer and meditation, or found out more about psychic activity and mediums. Some people had experiences with a religious flavour to them (e.g. thinking that the Day of Judgement was happening or that they were Jesus Christ) that they now thought were because they had been unwell at the time. (For more information see the ‘Hearing voices, seeing things and unusual beliefs’). Others said that their faith and spirituality supported their wellbeing and recovery, offering a worldview which could allow a non-medical interpretation of unusual experiences and sometimes a positive and welcoming community to which they could belong. Several people shared a belief in the existence of God, Allah, or a higher power or consciousness.
How religion and spirituality helped
Many people were helped by religious organisations such as churches and faith groups, but also by prayer, meditation and a belief in a higher power. While meditation involves concentration and the development of awareness, prayer is about communicating with a higher power to express feelings and thoughts, offer gratitude and make requests. It may also involve opening yourself up to a God. (For more discussion, see ‘Spirituality, Religion and God’ in the Healthtalkonline - Depression website). Religion was an important part of some people’s recovery (see ‘Recovery’ for more information). A belief in a good and loving god alongside going to a day centre and doing art work helped one man a lot towards his recovery.
Chair of Sound Minds, musician and actor, married with one child, 23. Ethnic background African-Caribbean
So, tell me about your local church?
Oh yes, I got involved with the local church after leaving the hospital, after leaving hospital and I went to the Day Centre and that closed down. And not much doing then. So what it was, I was in my flat, I was in the flat for a long time, day in, day out, nothing to do, you know, I didn’t want to go to the local resource centre because that’s all they do, is sit there, and give you a meal, and play scrabble and cards, that weren’t no good for me.
Anyway what it was it was really raining heavily, and the wind was blowing one, one Christmas and the place was dark. I looked through the windows, darkness everywhere. I was thinking this is it, this is hell. Anyway I screamed out of the flat, I said, “Someone help me.” This is true. And not long, the next day the Minister from the local church came round selling calendars. And he said to me, if he was going to see me in church on Sunday. And I said, “Of course I’ll come to church.” I only said that because he’s a minister. Anyway I bought the calendar anyway.
And the funny thing is I said to myself afterwards, I said, Hang on Devon, there’s only one person that can help you, and it must be God. Because the doctors can’t help me. Because I’m still the same. So I said, let trying going to church and see if it’s any different. So the next Sunday came and I went to his church, but I never went in. I didn’t have the bottle to go in. I went up to the door. Oh no. So I went straight back home. And then I tried again a couple of weeks after that. And I went in this time. And I felt ashamed. As soon as I got in there people were nice to me, yes, people were nice. They said, “Hello. How are you.” Shook my hand. I’ve never seen that for a long time, you know, and they said, “Oh you’ll be fine.” And they I start singing hymns and they were preaching. But I remember at the end of the service, there was a minister from Africa there that Sunday, and he said, “Anyone who wants to be prayed for, come to see me at the end, at the end of the service.” So at the end I went up to see him, and I said, “Oh can you pray for me, I’ve got mental health problems.” So he took me downstairs into a little vestry room. And the local minister was there. Both of them came in and I told them what happened to me. How I got mental health problems, and they both laid their hands on me. On my head and prayed for me. And they said, “Will you give your life to Jesus Christ tonight.” I said, “Yes.” And I gave my life to Christ there and became a Christian.
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Ron is a trainer and consultant, having worked in the field of mental health for several years. He is married with seven children. Ethnic background' White British.
And I guess the last thing I’ve rediscovered is my Spirituality I’m now in a, I’ve started going to church, not that I believe everything in church is saying but I think it’s nice to have a place where you can just reflect and I, I find church is particularly good for just sitting being quiet for an hour and being able to reflect differently. so there’s that sense of being able to explore my own spiritual being again which is, I know, I’ve got some friends that are quite strange for me, because they’re people that don’t drink they don’t smoke, they’re, they are Christians very much and quite a lot of time when we get together we, we argue about scripture and, the characteristics of God, you know? so it’s, so I guess my life’s come full circle because I started my life wanting to be a Priest, and, and I’m coming to this point in my life where I’m probably going to study Theology and maybe never become a Priest because I can’t imagine [wife’s name] as a minister’s wife she’d kill me but I can imagine me doing that just for myself and just something for me because I’ve been travelling on the road now for, what? Seventeen years? And, I don’t think I want to be doing it after twenty I think I want to stop and become a farmer [laughs] you know, or something.
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Tim is unemployed, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
And have you had any thoughts of the therapeutic role of religion at all?
I don’t think it’s therapy. I think it’s true. I don’t believe in religion as a therapy. I think it’s true. That’s why I became a Catholic. Also I think if you are mentally ill or have a chronic condition. Whatever you’ve got diabetes you need the service, you need God’s help and you need the help of his son and the Holy Spirit. So yes, I am. I don’t think it’s therapy. I think it’s true. That’s why I became… I could have gone on being a schizophrenic without going to church. I decided to go to church thirteen years ago. And now I became a Catholic eleven years ago. And no one… it’s a wonderful family for me. I’m [name] my friend to whom a toad started speaking in 1968, he said to me, “The Holy Family’s my family.” I like that.
And can you remember why you first went to church thirteen years ago?
Why I realised it was true. I never denied it, but I realised it was true. So I thought if you’ve got one of these conditions. I read the Gospels and I thought this is all true, no one could have made this up. Jesus is the Son of God, while he will come again. He will come again into this world. That’s why I became a Catholic.
Devon was helped by a Christian pastor when he felt unwell in the middle of the night, whilst Janey was helped by a chaplain on the university campus who offered her hospitality with his family when she was unwell. Stuart spoke about a ‘befriender’ from the mental health charity Rethink who was very ‘spiritual’ and helped him a great deal.
Some people talked about things they could learn from Buddhism and meditation. Dolly talked about how Buddhism helped her to think about where in her life she could make positive changes, and says that she doesn’t know what she would have done had she not come across Buddhism. Other people borrowed from many different belief systems and looked for what they could gain from each of them.
David does volunteer work, and is single with no children. Ethnic background' White British.
There’s more and more, there’s more and more spirituality in that coming through at the moment and things which is a bit weird [laughs].
Well tell me something about your spiritual side?
Well there’s a lot, there’s like a lot of the Buddhism and stuff and that coming through and meditation and things. And that’s on the NLP and everything as well. I’ve always been more sort of into paganism and what they call the left hand path and the right hand path but I’m more into the left hand path, then slightly Ancient Egyptians, Samarians, Paganism, Nordic, African American. Native American. And then there’s Aboriginal. Everything from that sort of world. I’m more in touch with like nature and that, but I also recognise like the advances in even that as well. Like the 1900s and stuff. I think a lot of that’s just ignored these days.
But I’ve been exploring it… but it’s kept my brain active.
… and it’s enabled me to just think and especially doing the psychology and that, I can like look at things in the critical way and like dismiss certain things in that as well. So like I can do that.
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Jenni is 30, lives in London, works in business and has no children. She describes herself as mixed race, lives in a shared house and is currently doing a number of courses. Ethnic Background' Mixed
Are you a spiritual person at all?
Yes, when I was getting on well, I got into meditation and Kundalini yoga and stuff like that, and apparently when you become unwell like this, you turn to those type of things. But I never, I’ve heard stories, like people thought they were God, and people think there’s some kind of spirituality going on. But I wasn’t really like that, but now that I’m better I do go to a Gospel church and I think that there’s a lot to be said for believing in God, because it’s supportive and that’s a good thing, but like, yeah, yeah.
And so does anything like prayer help you or is it more like the community in the church or....?
I just like the music, because they sing really happy songs, and that kind of suits my personality. I don’t think too much about it, and I don’t go to the Bible talk or anything like that. But I just like, I don’t really like talking about God that much in like a group, but I might help, like I go with my friend and she, I like talk to her about how God’s helping her to improve her life kind of thing, because she likes to improve things, just like I do. So yes, that’s nice.
When spirituality doesn’t help
A few people had had bad experiences with religion or religious leaders such as imams or priests. For example, Arwen talked about being ‘frog-marched’ to Catholic Mass; when she was 14 as her mother thought she was possessed and had her exorcised. She felt terrified. Colin talked about a time when he was in hospital feeling unwell and ‘some sort of Church of Scotland exorcism team’ came to see him. He found it very strange and it just added to his distress at the time.
Social care assistant, married with adult children. Ethnic background/nationality' Black Afro-Caribbean (born in West Indies); in UK for 41 years
With this psychosis thing I have. To tell you that it’s more, it can be a hindrance, it really can be a hindrance. Being religious, being spiritual I live a prayer life and every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognised as divine can trigger a psychosis episode, like hearing voice of God etc; I have to pitch my religious belief, so that it look intellectually respectable that can stand criticism and cannot proclaim one’s inspired by God to those who knows I am a schizophrenic but the Fundamentalist get away with it and people without a serious in remission mental illness can speak to God and not seen as crazy. I was possessed by the devil, I felt possessed but I never believed in a devil as a spirit of a bad person in a celestial place called hell. The term was widely used in the 70s and 80s to describe negative soul energy from an ill mind that trick the body to do bizarre things. I perceived that I had the devil in me but it really was not it’s the mind playing tricks, like I say my mind was disturbed. A disturbed mind, nothing coming from outside of me into me, nothing, you’ve got your own spirits we all been born and created with spirit and so on. We don’t know where anything comes from, we don’t know, we really don’t know anything really. Most explanation centre on supernatural creator and it is a matter of faith with a science mixture that make up my belief. People make up ideas on it, when I come to think of it, its ideas about God, that’s what’s flying round the place, everybody has got their own ideas about God. Nobody know what God looks like, nobody on this earth, we’ve seen, we are on a planet, we do not know there’s existence out there, we don’t know if there’s supernatural thing, there are force out there, there’s a force in us, a creative thing. I just think it’s a force and you can’t say it’s a person, you can’t say, can name it but the only name in the human language you can give it is a god. That’s the only name we can associate it as being something we can comprehend. Some people say, call this same God, Jesus or whatever or Buddha or whatever.
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Naveed is a volunteer, and is married with two children. Ethnic background' British Pakistani.
I mean every time my Father and Mum found out that there was someone that, you know, might be able to help me out. They said … I knew whatsername, I wasn’t possessed. There was no jinns. There was no jadu. There was no… I was ill. But just to make them happy I would go along, you know.
I mean they took me to see someone in [place name]. My Father took me to see this person in [place name] once. And we went in there and we sat down and it was time to pray. So when we had said our prayers and then I eventually I saw him, and he was really… and in those days I had long hair. I used to have this film actor Amitabh Bachchan. I used to love his hair style and I used to have long hair like him. And my Mum used to say sometimes. “Oh you’re my Amitabh you my Amitabh.”
And I went to see this guy and God he got a bucket of water, and he was reading stuff like, and by the end of it, I was like soaking wet from head to toe. Because he was trying to get the jinns out.
So was it, pou panni where you blow water….and say a prayer around it?
Yes, saying a prayer, and the scooping of blood with a bowl or a cup thing and he was like throwing it onto me like you. I said to my Dad, I said, “Dad I think they’ve gone. I think they’ve come out. You know, can we go home now?” We came home, and then sometimes down the line, my Dad found out that there was someone in [place] that you know, also could help out.
My Dad contacted him and he said, “Yes, tell your son to wear a shirt right and tie that he’s going to wear to [place]. When he gets here, tell him not to take it off, right. Sleep in that shirt the night, during the night. Don’t take it off in the morning. When he comes to see me then take it off.” I said, “Okay.” So we got up on the Friday and got dressed. And my said, “Which shirt are you going to wear, because you’re going to have to wear it like tomorrow afternoon or whatever until you see that guy. So I wore a shirt and so we went down to [place], stayed the night over and then went to see this person the next day. And he goes, “Have you slept in that shirt?” I said, “Yes. I did.” And he goes, “You can take it off now.” So I took it off and he laid it out. He measured it. And then he crumpled it up again. And I’m thinking bloody hell my Mum ironed that for me last night. And then he read something and he blew on it, and then he spread it out again and he measured it and he goes, “It’s slightly longer than it was before. So you’re possessed.”
And was it jinn possession you were suffering with?
And what do you think about jinns, jadu?
I believe in them. I believe in jinns. I mean I’m wearing this [tabiz].
Yes. Well whatsername I know with me it’s not that, you know, it’s an illness.
Other approaches to spirituality
After people experienced mental distress they often changed their approach to religion and spirituality. Whilst some rejected the faith they had followed since childhood, others studied religion and spirituality.
Stuart is a political activist/documentary photographer/writer. He lives with his partner. Ethnic background/nationality' White British
I do now, believe that there’s a lot that exists outside our current understanding. Like I was saying, you know, I think it’s very wrong to assume, because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean, it’s not there, you know, because we can’t touch something doesn’t mean it’s not there. I think, nothing’s very wrong, I believe that I have had a lot of psychic experiences, as you’ve just seen the film of my grandfather, doing stuff where he was known for using the powers of his mind, and going beyond the current understanding of the mind.
I believe those things do exist and it’s very, very wrong to psychiatry to assume, assume that anything outside the box is potential mental illness or psychosis. And I mean, I believe that a lot of stuff, may be psychosis and psychic is much so one in the same. And but I, a lot of confusion has come in my life where I, I’ve tried to speak to psychiatry about psychic experience and they’ve just told me, it’s a mental illness.
And I think that’s just very, very ignorant. You know, we know nothing.
We know nothing of the mind’s capabilities. We may, what our brain is there for, is to receive information, maybe, psychic experience is the brain doing its natural job and receiving information, but because that information that’s been received is not currently understood it’s wrong to say it’s mental illness. In my book but it’s very wrong. And that is not progression, you know, but that’s not progress to me. Maybe we’ve really start looking at certain experiences of schizophrenia and rather than just saying it’s mental illness. May be, you know, unless it’s been investigated, what is this experience about? You know, and may be some voices, you know, I’ve heard, you know, a lot of people that hear voices, may be some voices may be psychic. Many psychics have voices that speak to them, and they pass those voices on. Sometimes that’s happened to me. Other times I can recognise my voices have been caused by stress in life. And I’ve worked out what those voices are. I don’t think that they’re not psychic, you know, those voices I recognise have got nothing to do with being psychic, they are, they weren’t myself expressing anxiety and fears in life and they came out in voices. You know, but I don’t think all voices are mental illness.
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Margaret is a therapist, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
Yes, because they [psychiatrists] just go with the chemical imbalance don’t they, and it’s your thoughts. But no, no, I don’t buy that at all. I think, I think the human body and we’re far more com… you know, I believe that we’re a spirit, with a, with a human overcoat, human body overcoat which we lose and go back to spirit and I think it’s all far more complex than that.
So the voices were spirits or different parts of your soul? How would you say that?
Yes, I don’t know. I’ve read quite a lot of channelled stuff from other entities, some of them not human beings. Some of them and they’ve come up with some quite interesting stuff. […] Yes. It’s some fascinating stuff. Some of it’s like a bit, mind blowing and hard to get your head round, but some interesting, yes, they just. One of them was a parable. It was a story and it was of a spiritual being and he had like a light side and a dark side, and the dark side was following him and was out to get him, and trip him up every step of the way. And, and, this, this particular channel was saying, you know, that everybody has this light and dark side. And the light… the dark side can’t exist without the light side, so it’s never going to overpower you. Because it was a really good little analogy it gave. It said, like if you have a dark room and you open the door, the light will flood in and the room will be light, but if you have a, a light room and dark opens the door, it can’t penetrate the light. So you’re always stronger and it can’t survive without you, and it was saying haven’t you noticed, you know, that dark, your voices can never destroy you, or overpower you, you know, well they nearly did to me once, but they can push you to your limits.
Some people thought their voices could be because they had ‘very good hearing’ (see ‘Hearing voices, seeing things and unusual beliefs’); others thought they might be their unconscious or a part of the soul. A few people found that talking to others about their faith helped to better connect it to their recovery, ensured they were not isolated, and involved a move away from ‘narrow’ psychiatric understandings of mental illness.
Last reviewed April 2014.
Last updated April 2014.