Lithium and a Prayer: A Few Thoughts on Mental Illness, Medication, and Spirituality

Lithium and a Prayer: A Few Thoughts on Mental Illness, Medication, and Spirituality July 25, 2015

Two weeks ago spiritually-minded people from across the country flocked to Hot Springs, NC for the 2015 Wild Goose Festival. The Wild Goose Festival is a progressive Christian festival celebrating art, justice, and spirituality.

One of the talks was given by Sarah Lund, author of “Blessed Are the Crazy,” and David Hosey, Associate Chaplain for the United Methodist Protestant Community at American University in Washington, DC. Their presentation,  entitled “Christ on the Psych Ward,” explored the intersection of mental illness with Christian spirituality.  This was one of the first times the topic of mental illness had been addressed at Wild Goose. In order to continue the extremely important conversation around mental health and perpetual journey towards mental, spiritual, and physical healing, I have ceded this month’s post to David — my friend and man I plan to marry in 42 days. In 2011, David was diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder. To read more of David’s writing or find more resources on mental health, visit his blog: Foolish Hosey


After Sarah Lund and I gave our talk on mental illness at the Wild Goose Festival a few weeks back, there have been a few things that I’ve been pondering, mainly based on stories or questions that people shared with me after the talk.

One recurring question had to do with medication. Different people asked it in different ways, but it boiled down to something like this:

“I know that since I [or a loved one] have been diagnosed with a mental illness that taking prescribed medication is the healthy thing to do. I know it’s harmful to think that if I [or my loved one] just prayed harder or had more faith, that this would go away. So why does it still feel like prayer should make this better?”

I get where they’re coming from.

At a certain, important level, this is just a case of stigma doing it’s thing. Even if I don’t hold the personal, intellectual belief that positive thinking or prayer or ‘just having more faith’ would make mental illness go away, there’s enough of that kind of thinking floating around for me to internalize it on an emotional level. Folks who have decided that even if we pray for a sickness to be healed, we should probably see a doctor, too, find the idea that mental illness is somehow in a different category a bit stickier to overcome.


But on another level, I think this feeling that prayer or faith ought to be able to get us out of mental health crises is worth paying some attention to. Because mental illness — and, I think, illness in general — really does go after us at a spiritual level, even if there is a biological or chemical or psychological explanation for it.

Here’s what I mean. When I talk about spirituality, a term that can be rather nebulous, what I’m talking about is meaning-making. I’m talking about questions like, “Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s my purpose? What are my passions? What are my deepest held beliefs?”

It’s exactly all of that — purpose, meaning, identity, worth — that mental illness attacks.

While medication can defend against those attacks by restoring some equilibrium, helping us build our resilience, moderating our out-of-control moods — it can’t actually, by itself, do the hard work of healing the damage done to the “Who am I and what am I here for?” part of our lives.

What medication can do — and this is super-important — is give us a bit of the stability that we need to do some of that hard work. ‘Cuz it’s awfully hard to spend time in, say, vocational discernment mode when your brain is trying to kill you.

I’m reminded of a passage from Barbara Brown Taylor’s hauntingly beautiful Learning to Walk in the Dark. She speaks of her guides on a cave expedition in which she and her guides spend some time sitting in the sort of absolute darkness that can only exist deep below the earth’s surface:

When it is time to go, I follow Rockwell and Marrion back out of the cave again, thinking about what good guides they are. They kept me safe while letting me practice courage. They pointed me in the right direction without telling me what to see. Though they have been here many times before, they let me explore my own cave. Maybe that is the difference between pastoral counselors and spiritual directors. We go to counselors when we want help getting out of caves. We go to directors when we are ready to be led farther in.

To ‘pastoral counselors,’ we who grapple with mental illness or mental health crises could add therapists, psychiatrists, social workers — all the people who help us out of the cave when we feel like we’re running out of oxygen.

Ultimately, we’ll need to do the work of going into our darkness, of poking around in it. Whether that’s a matter of spiritual direction or some other practice of faith, it’s only by going in and through that we can discover our true selves and begin to work out what it is that we are called to be.

But in the meantime, the medication, the counseling, the treatment — that keeps us from drowning.

I hope this is helpful for folks who are wrestling with this question. We need all the help we can get, honestly.

Back in 2011, during my series of psychiatric hospitalizations, I wrote a song called ‘sufficient.’ One line that I scribbled down in a journal kept coming back to me until it found it’s way into music: “ain’t no pill that’ll fill this hole in your heart.”

That line is true. It takes a whole lot more than a lithium pill to start to feel human again.

Take the pill, anyway.

The quote is from Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne, 2014), pg. 129. 

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