Bipolar Disorder and Spirituality
Religious participation can help keep you grounded as you live with bipolar disorder. Find out about the benefits of spirituality for bipolar individuals.
By Madeline Vann, MPH
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Get the latest health facts, tips, and advice. @EverydayHealth
A strong commitment to spirituality may help people with bipolar disorder cope and build a foundation of greater self-worth. Yet studies of spirituality among people with bipolar disorder are few and far between, and have conflicting results. Some have shown that people with mental health diagnoses, including bipolar disorder, are less likely to attend religious services or say that they have defined religious beliefs. Yet other researchers report that religious participation helps people with bipolar disorder to cope.
“Religion can be supportive [by providing] social support and resources and the internal means of being able to cope with the impact of the illness on their lives,” says psychiatrist Mario Cruz, MD, in practice with the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Dr. Cruz says that while excessive religious behavior was once seen as a symptom of psychosis, there is little evidence to support this. Rather, his research and that of his colleagues suggests that people with bipolar disorder use religious activities, especially prayer and meditation, as ways to cope with distress. However, he acknowledges that the data also show that when symptoms become severe, religious participation drops off.
The benefits of religious participation for people with bipolar disorder include:
• A supportive network of friends and acquaintances.
• Financial and other types of practical support.
• Uplifting messages and activities that may help regulate emotions and provide a source of hope
• Scriptural messages that interpret the challenges of bipolar disorder as a way to grow closer to God or to grow spiritually.
• Reinforcement of the messages of many substance abuse programs, especially 12-step programs.
The relationship between religious practice and mood disorders may be a two-way street. Some research suggests that participating in religious organizations and activities can protect against negative moods. Other research shows that when people are depressed or going through a downward cycle, they are likely to isolate themselves from all kinds of social activities, including those related to spirituality.
One Woman’s Bipolar and Faith Journey
“I was christened and raised Catholic and am a daily communicant when my health allows,” says New Orleans resident “Sarah.” Sarah, now 63, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1977. “I pray continually for trust in God and I know that He leads me on my journey. My daily mass attendance centers me and the rite of reconciliation comforts me.”
Sarah admits that her faith journey has not been smooth. Despite her lifelong Catholic practice in a strongly Catholic community, she has questioned her beliefs and God at times. “Yes, I get angry at God and rant and rail about my mental health. At times I just cannot go to mass or attend church at all, but I just keep on keeping on,” she says.
The times when Sarah chooses not to participate in religious activities often coincide with shifts in mood that cause her to worry about how she might behave around other people. After three decades with bipolar disorder, Sarah has learned about her patterns — the highs and lows — and how to cope.
“I know from my own experience that when I'm in the valley that I isolate myself. Not because of what anyone says or does, but because I'm concerned of what I may do or say that might be considered inappropriate,” she explains. Even compassionate friends within her faith have had difficulty understanding her symptoms and respecting her boundaries, Sarah reports. Yet, she says that her continuing faith provides a foundation for daily happiness and contentment when she is not “in the valley.”
“I am not talking about the bipolar highs, just plain everyday happiness and the knowledge that Jesus is with me always,” she says. Sarah also acknowledges that medication, psychiatrists, and therapists have played a significant role in her life with bipolar disorder. Faith alone is not a cure, she warns.
“I've also had some conflict with a member of a support group who claims that you can cure yourself by faith. I do not believe that anyone can cure themselves,” she says, adding that she relies heavily on the Serenity Prayer, which helps her come to terms with her lack of control over her disorder.
“You didn't cause the disease. You can't control it all of the time. You cannot cure it yourself. I believe that you can only do the best that you can and be the best you can be,” she says.
The messages and beliefs built into religion can also help people with bipolar disorder be kinder to themselves.
“My goal is to go easy on myself and to forgive myself for all of my mistakes. After all, Jesus died on the cross for me so if He can forgive me, then I surely can forgive myself,” says Sarah.