A Call for Mental Illness Support Group
An editorial by Ineke de Wit
Some time ago in an interview with Sakyong Mipham that I had about my bipolar condition, the suggestion came up to see what could be done for people suffering from mental illness. I always felt that mental illness is still a vast taboo topic not only in our western society, but also–and more so–in our sangha, both in terms of people suffering from it and with those who relate to those people. Because mental illness is a mental phenomenon it is tempting to relate it to meditation practice. In terms of the famous “obstacles and antidotes” in meditation, when is depression just slothfulness and mania just elation that is just part of our meditation practice? And when is it a mental illness that needs psychiatric or other help?
What to think of the comment that my meditation instructor once gave, when I told her I suffered from a strong phobia: “That’s your basic ego” and left it at that. When later in my life it became clear that I was bipolar, people around me said that I probably had not meditated all these years in the right way. After working as a meditation instructor and teacher for many years, a some point I was excluded from any further teaching. My former colleagues looked at me as if I was a ticking time bomb that could explode when teaching a class, instead of asking me what kind of support I needed and what I felt I could still do for our sangha. And these personal examples are not just personal; I have heard many, many comparable stories in forty years of my involvement. They all happened in the same way things happen in our society at large. Come on, we can do better!
What can we do?
Training. Fortunately, from now on our future guides and meditation instructors will at least be trained to relate to mental illness in a less naïve way. Our acharyas are all aware of the need of such training. And our kasung is aware of this need as they sometimes have to act in cases of emergency. Is it scary to have to deal with people in deep depression, mania or psychosis? Yes, it is. But does our warrior practice stop at this? That would be very sad.
Support group. Another thing we can do is this: we as sangha people who suffer from mental illness have something very precious to offer to our fellow-sufferers. We can alleviate at least to some extent the feeling of loneliness and isolation by expressing our understanding and offering our support to each other. I know we have on the Shambhala network a support group for people with Aspergers, but as yet none for people suffering from mental illness. I have very positive experience with such a support group outside our sangha. The advantage of having such support group in our Shambhala sangha, however, is that we can exchange how our practice and our our illness interact, and often limit our ability to practice or take part in programs. We can discuss, support and help each other on our Shambhala path. In that way we can be very valuable to each other. And isn’t that what we want?
So, if you as fellow-sufferer want, or know somebody who might want, to participate in an on-line support group for mental illness, we could start an on-line support group in Shambhala. Please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.