Mindfulness and Mental Illness

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A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis . …

A mental health condition isn’t the result of one event. Research suggests multiple, linking causes. Genetics, environment and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like being the victim of a crime. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too. One in 5 adults experiences a mental health condition every year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In addition to a person’s directly experiencing a mental illness, family, friends and communities are also affected. (From “Mental Health Conditions,” on the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.)

Dear Still Water Friends,

The main reason I became interested in meditation had to do with a deep desire to relate to people in my life who were often difficult. I am part of a family that deals with many different mental illnesses. I personally have dealt with depression, alcoholism, and attention deficit disorder, to name just a few. In high school, I wrote my senior research paper on suicide. Researching the topic gave me a better understanding of what makes people think of suicide as an option. Since that time, I realized that consumption of alcohol was an obstacle to my coping and functioning as an adult in the world and I became involved in a recovery program. That recovery program suggests using prayer and meditation as a means to find peace within oneself. Even before entering recovery, I was on a quest to have peace within myself. I somehow knew that inner peace was the answer to having healthy and meaningful relationships with sometimes difficult family members, and was critical to building healthy, long-term, sustainable relationships for myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and the Still Water community have helped me come to some awarenesses that are helpful in dealing with difficult people:

  • Understanding My Own Suffering. I must first and foremost be willing to take a look at my own suffering. As a member of the Still Water Mindfulness Community I have the resources of sangha and Dharma to draw from. 
  • Deep Understanding. I can educate myself and be willing to see suffering from the perspective of the sufferer. 
  • Deep Listening. When someone is suffering, often they may just need someone to listen to them say what is going on for them and to hear them without judgment.

Members of my family have been diagnosed with anorexia, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, I have had to learn how to understand what might be going on with the sufferer. A member of our sangha recently shared how understanding the suffering of a person with mental illness was helpful in being able to offer compassion. That really resonated with me.

As many in the Still Water community know, our youngest daughter has suffered with anorexia for quite some time. In the beginning, we read up on this disease and got her treatment for it, hoping that because we caught it early, it would be resolved and she would return to her happy and healthy life again. It is now six years later, and this disorder is still causing much suffering for our dear sweet daughter. When a family member suffers we all suffer, and so, I have learned it is very important for me to take care of my own suffering. Meditation has become my daily medication. Showing up at Still Water and learning how you deal with issues provides much support.

Thich Nhat Hanh shares extensively about the importance of sangha and Dharma when dealing with mental illness issues. I can’t really ask my daughter to take care of herself if I am not taking care of myself. I belong to a support group of mothers with children who suffer from eating disorders. I can ask them any question, vent, share my suffering and success with this group without judgement and know that I am not alone in my suffering.

Through family therapy, my daughter, my husband, and I have cultivated the skill of deep listening. We have been fortunate to work with therapists who have helped us see we could benefit each other by listening better. Through this process, Callie and I discovered that we had a habit of care-taking each other to the extent that we were often unable to address tough issues. We saw that we loved each other so much that we didn’t want to see the other suffer, and by gaining the awareness to see this, we have become more skillful at addressing difficult topics, discussing those issues openly, and trusting that we will continue to love each other. I asked Callie to share with me what she found helpful as a sufferer and to identify some things we have cultivated. She said, compassion, understanding, non-judgment and validation that her feelings are heard even if we don’t agree have been helpful to her. She feels that we have all come a long way toward being more helpful to each other.

This Thursday after our sitting and walking meditation, we will focus our Dharma sharing on mindfulness and mental illness. We will begin exploring these questions:

Has your direct experience with mental illness helped you to have compassion for your own difficulties and suffering?

Has understanding more deeply your own suffering and difficulties helped you to have compassion for the suffering of those with mental illness?

What mindfulness skills do you find especially helpful in dealing with your own suffering and the suffering of those with mental illness?

I look forward to a wonderful discussion.

In researching this topic, I came across two articles that were especially helpful:

Many blessings,

Shawna Donaldson

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