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.
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
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.