Spiritual Distress and Mental Illness

“Chaplain, I want to ask you a question,I gave up on God and spirituality, but lately I have been wondering about this question. How is it that that some of us have to go through so much pain?” As a mental health chaplain, I have been asked that question a lot. The Old Testament book of Proverbs teaches that the human spirit can sustain us in times of trouble and adversity, but when the spirit is broken or crushed hope is lost (Prov. 18:14). A crushed spirit indicates the presence of intense spiritual distress.

What is spiritual distress? Some researchers note spiritual pain has always been a part of human existence (Heyse-Moore, 1996). If we have pain in our bodies we know it. Some time ago, I came down the stairs at home at a fairly brisk rate when a sudden sharp pain stabbed through my right knee causing me to pull up in agony. I felt that pain! How do we experience spiritual pain?  Before attempting to answer to that question, I will discuss a brief understanding of what is spirituality.

There is no shortage of debate, discussion and disagreement over how to define spirituality. Etymologically, the word spirituality is rooted in the Latin spiritus which means “breath,” “life.” or “soul;” the verb is spiro “to breathe.” Spirituality then is essentially about the essence of life, as such, it goes beyond physical life and includes the inner and transcendent aspects of existence. Spirituality suggests life is more than the sum of its parts. If you ever have the feeling that you are connected to something greater than yourself then you have had a moment of spiritual insight. Most people have many such moments and that creates a desire within to seek out and connect with that greater reality. This brings me to a definition of spirituality.

One of the most widely used definitions of spirituality and the one I advocate for is that spirituality is a search for the sacred (Hill et al., 2000). The sacred is a part of us but is also beyond us. Or maybe we can say we are part of the sacred, the life that we share is a sacred gift that connects us to each other, the environment, the past, the present and the future. Spirituality encompasses our recognition of that reality and a deep desire to establish a relationship with it. Augustine noted that our hearts are restless until it finds its rest in God. Thus he is asserting that the human heart is constantly searching for a divine connection to complete it. So, whatever else is included, spirituality involves that reaching out to something beyond me. Without that divine reference as some researchers have noted, there is no spirituality.

In connection with this, the way a person relates to the sacred is of vital importance. This is the genesis of spiritual pain. We experience spiritual distress when our relationship with the divine we seek is in turmoil. Consequently, relational spirituality as some call it (Sandage & Shults, 2007) is about the way we relate to God and when that relationship is disrupted, severed, disconnected or impaired we experience spiritual pain. The sense of disconnection from the divine is also reflected in disconnection from self and others. This loss of connection is often described as a loss of meaning and purpose (Heyse-Moore, 1996), loss of direction in life, feeling of rejection by God and others, being the target of God’s anger, feeling that I have displeased God, and other such similar thoughts and beliefs (Hall & Edwards, 2002). Research has shown such thoughts can lead to depression and other mental health issues and vice versa (Bishop, 2008; Krumrei, Pirutinsky, & Rosmarin, 2013). Hence, there is a direct connection between spiritual and psychological pain, but they are not the same. For example, when someone experiences a devastating loss, the person goes through mental, psychological distress. They think about how different life will be without the loved one. A husband may think about not having his wife to share his successes and failures with or a good friend may will the companionship of another. Up to this point, the distress may not be spiritual, but when the survivor says, God is cruel and mean to take such a wonderful person from us it now becomes a spiritual distress.

While there is no shortage of disagreements about how to define spirituality, there is abundant evidence of its connection with health. This site will focus attention on its many benefits for health maintenance and recovery from illness.

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