Confronting the mental health stigma in spiritual community

Wellness

In the summer of 2017, Buddhist and yoga teacher, Michael Stone died from a drug overdose (you can read the official statement here). It sent the spiritual communities he’d walked in reeling — although people knew he’d struggled with his mental health, specifically, Bipolar Disorder, they never imagined it would go this far. He was a devoted practitioner and sought balance through medication, therapy, and primarily, his deep practice.

But through it all, he kept his struggles quiet.

His family says he feared the stigma of diagnosis may discredit him — and this is a fear many teachers and students alike quietly share. Amidst well-meaning advice like, ‘just get on your mat’ or, ‘meditate more, your mind will settle down!’, struggling seekers fear alienation. They fear that they won’t be understood or accepted. Or worse, that their diagnosis will leave them stigmatized for life.

Many of us come to meditation, yoga, and spiritual community seeking acceptance, community, and a space that we can feel safely held — regardless of what plagues us.

But mental illness has remained a silent source of suffering and shame for many who turn to their mat. Some are secretly hoping that with the right balance of medication, therapy, and practice, they too can experience the “yoga zen” that seems so far out of reach. ‘How can I be a yogi/Buddhist/meditator/etc. if I feel this way? They’ll think I’m a fraud.’

Practice more. Suffer more.

With prominent teachers like Ana Forrest and Noah Levine speaking up and sharing their stories of addiction, trauma, and recovery, the conversation has just barely begun. Meanwhile, even the best practices recommended in spiritual texts cannot substitute for the power of feeling seen, being supported, and knowing you’re accepted. Suffering cannot be silently meditated or practiced away. Even on the ‘good days’, mental illness is alive and impacting yogis, meditators, dancers, Tantrikas — all of us.

Because what impacts the one impacts the whole.

It is time to confront the stigma and change the conversation. Teachers and students alike must be willing to recognize where we have used Spiritual Bypass (a term coined by psychologist John Welwood) to avoid dealing with the pain, unresolved wounds, trauma, and feeling of helplessness that can come with acknowledging the pervasive presence mental illness. We can’t “just think positively’’ or encourage people to “manifest their own healing” while refusing to also sit with them in the discomfort of their suffering. We can’t tell people to “get off the meds and work through it”.

 

The very definition of suffering is the refusal to be present with all that is. And when a diverse group of people gather to practice, to sit, to grow and to connect, we must proactively welcome each other. Let’s begin eradicating the stigma, shame, and fear of mental health.

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