Buddhism and Mental Illness

Buddhism and Mental Illness

As I write this there are millions, if not billions of people on this planet who are suffering from some form of mental illness.  But what exactly is mental illness and how does one approach it from a Buddhist perspective?  That is the crux of this article which will examine the various perspectives on mental illness among the various Buddhist traditions.

buddhism and mental illness

Image: Flickr user A Health Blog

What is Mental Illness?

So how do we define mental illness?

In the newly released DSM-5, mental illness is defined as:

“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”

I think this is a pretty comprehensive definition and covers what is and what is not considered to be a mental illness from the perspective of modern psychiatry.

I think there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness where some people are judged just because they suffer from anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  But I think more and more awareness is spreading among the people and it is my hope that one day we can openly talk about our afflictions and work together to heal them in a compassionate manner.

Buddhism and Mental Illness

buddhism and mental illness

Three Poisons: Ignorance, Attachment, Aversion

According to Buddhism, afflictions like mental illness fall under the term dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness) and the specific mental states such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression, and other states that we experience in mental illness are called kleshas (mental states that cloud the mind and result in unwholesome actions).

All of these kleshas can be traced back to three root kleshas ignorance (or misknowledge), attachment, and aversion which are known as the Three Poisons in Mahayana tradition or the Three Unwholesome Roots in the Theravada tradition.

We can overcome the kleshas using meditation by acknowledging them and then letting them go but there are times when our mental afflictions become too overwhelming for us to cope with.

Sadly, many Buddhist teachers are under the impression that just meditating is the way to treat mental illness instead of taking medications for it.  I think this is a form of stigma that tends to be prevalent among some Buddhist teachers.

The Buddha taught that we should take any medicine that we need to in order to maintain our health and this also includes psychiatric medicines.


My recommendation is to seek professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed by mental afflictions.  Though meditation may be helpful for mental illness it should be considered a supplement to and not a replacement for medication and thereapy.

Thanks for reading this article on Buddhism and Mental Illness, and as always feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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6 Responses to Buddhism and Mental Illness

  1. Bethany says:

    Hi Ian: Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post. I am not Buddhist but I do have a great interest in the various religions of the world. To add your perspective on Buddhism and mental health is thought provoking. You do a great service to point out the benefit of combining the value of medicine with religious belief. I agree that they are not mutually exclusive.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Bethany,
      Thanks for your comment! My goal is to do what I can to try to reduce the stigma around mental illness and how it affects our Buddhist practice.

  2. wunderkindonsulting says:

    Thanks for providing some insight on the relationship between Bhuddist philosophy and mental illness. I know that different religions tend to form different opinions about mental illness. I know that within Christianity, many people believe that you can just pray mental illness away. While I certainly believe in the power of prayer, I believe that sometimes our Heavenly provider gives us tools like therapy, and medication to curtail some of the harmful impacts of mental illnesses. I appreciate you sharing your opinion and do agree that though meditation is great, it should always coincide with a plan set forth by a professional.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks so much for commenting! And thanks for sharing the perspective that many Christians have, that prayer is the only answer to mental illness. Similarly there are some Buddhist teachers that believe that you can meditate the mental illness away which usually ends with the person getting worse since meditation tends to “open the floodgates” and could be overwhelming for the practitioner/patient.

  3. Debra says:

    I appreciate the fact that you’re recommending that meditation be considered a supplement – not meant to replace medical treatment by a medical professional. I agree. But what I love about your article and your website is what you offer on the sides of the page – all those wonderful inspiring books – I’ve read many of these authors and their teachings make such a huge difference in a person’s happiness level and ability to cope with the stresses of life. I love that your website seems to offer a balance of medical treatment and also mindful living. Well done.

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