Can Meditation Cure Mental Health Issues?

In an environment where meditation is being promoted for a whole range of mental health problems, a line should be drawn between the problems meditation can help with, and those it can’t.

There’s a tendency in spiritual communities to infer spiritual causes to well-known and documented medical conditions. If you look for it, you’ll find outlandish claims that certain esoteric practices claiming to cure schizophrenia or even cancer. I take this as evidence that human potential for self-deception knows no boundaries.

Yet, despite the “woo-woo”, we should not discard all “alternative” practices, such as meditation, as ineffective. There’s in fact increasing scientific evidence that meditation can help with many conditions like anxiety, depression and pain.

First, let there be no doubt that there’s absolutely no reason to differentiate meditation from medical or psychological treatment. If you’re under the care of a competent psychologist or doctor, and they’re willing to monitor you and support you while you practice meditation, there’s no reason to choose one over the other. When facing illnesses, meditation shouldn’t be used or seen as a cure or a treatment, but rather as an adjunct to treatment or simply a practice that might help.

But then, there are people – and I’ve known some – who are looking to treat their mental illnesses with meditation. This can quickly get ugly, since practitioners often interpret their symptoms as signs of their meditative progress. This can drive them to practice even more intensely and to bluntly reject other forms of advice and treatments. This is a path to self-destruction.

While I see meditation as highly effective for dealing with the “ordinary  neuroses” of most people, it was never intended to help with more serious manifestations of mental disorders. It’s totally inappropriate for that.

That’s not to say that meditation is “only” good for stress-reduction though. My personal viewpoint on neuroses is that most people are pretty deeply immersed in all kinds of neuroses. I would go as far as to say that the common shared worldview is, in a sense, seriously neurotic. I see meditation as the main remedy for that particular problem. This is why I practice and teach meditation.

As disappointing as it may sound, that effectiveness doesn’t extend to treating schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other psychopathologies. Somebody with a serious mental health problem who decides on their own to learn meditation and cure themselves is much more likely to exacerbate his or her problem.

I sincerely believe that a well-meaning but perhaps naive meditation teacher can worsen the problem by giving certain pieces of advice. While some meditation instructions may be helpful for a mentally stable person that begins having a variety of meditation experiences, the same advice could very well lead a mentally ill student deeper into its problems. Unfortunately, there are certain experiences that could be interpreted both ways – either as a symptom of a mental disorder or as a valuable meditation-induced insight – depending on the specific context and on the subject reporting the experience. This confusion can lead to very real and dangerous consequences.

There are however, meditation teachers who are in fact fully qualified therapists, and who are using meditation very effectively in conjunction with all the other therapies that they’ve been trained for. That really works.

In doubt, one should always consult a professional. While regular meditation practice shows tremendous benefits for many, it is absolutely not a magic-pill for serious mental illnesses. It was never designed for that, and I strongly advise against trusting teachers claiming otherwise.

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Gabriel Rocheleau

I'm a meditation teacher, writer and live to grow at all costs. I've been encouraged to teach by Upasaka Culadasa, author of "The Mind Illuminated" and my goal is to help you develop an effective and profoundly rewarding meditation practice.

2 Comments

  1. Don salmon on November 6, 2018 at 10:36 pm

    Interesting reflections.

    I was not sure of the validity of your case (in fact, mindfulness is one of the core skills taught in what remains the best – or one of the two best – treatments for one fo the most serious psychiatric illnesses (often more recalcitrant than schizophrenia) borderline personality disorder.

    But toward the end you gave an important caveat – that meditative practices can be very powerful when used by trained mental health workers in conjunction with other approaches. Yes, that makes sense and actually fits with my experience (I’m a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years experience, and 42 years of a regular sitting practice).

    I quite frequently recommend patients with serious mental issues to refrain from meditation practice and focus on very practical things. But sometimes such patients need mindfulness, but absolutely as only part of a rich program of development and social-emotional learning.

    You might find it very interesting to look at Dan Siegel’s latest book, “Aware,” in which he details astonishing results from his ‘wheel of awareness.” He puts simply being aware (in Culadasa’s language, the “still point” that emerges spontaneously at the 8th stage) in the cener of the wheel, and all we’re aware “of,” on the rim.

    Though he doesn’t use the same language (unfortunately he uses the left brain right brain metaphor, largely based on McGilchrist’s work – but from what Culadasa wrote to me when I directed him to Iain McGilchrist’s work, McGilchilrist’s metaphor of left and right brain is essentially the same as selective attention and peripheral awareness.

    Looking from the “hub” of the wheel – resting in teh calm, stillness of pure aware-ing, one may attend to the rim with narrow focus selectiv attention or wide focus peripheral awareness.

    Siegel claims to have helped a bipolar teen elimnate all medication and ALL symptoms. He hasn’t claimed it’s a cure for bipolar but it is highly suggestive. In any case, it still is in line with your closing point, that Siegel did this as a trained professional. Nowhere is Siegel even distantly suggesting that anybody can use the wheel of awareness to cure cancer or schizophrenia!!

    Very interesting article, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Gabriel Rocheleau on November 8, 2018 at 5:28 pm

      Hi Don!

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment. You bring valid points, and this makes me realize that I definitely should acquire more knowledge on the subject. I totally wasn’t aware that mindfulness was an effective technique to deal with borderline personality disorder, in fact I’ve always heard that BPD was extemely hard/impossible to treat!

      To be clear, I do think that meditation can help with mental health issues, and perhaps in some cases, even be curative. As I’m not a trained psychologist/doctor though, I err on the side of caution when teaching. I’ve seen people come to meditation classes looking to “cure” their depression to get off their meds, and that’s a big no-no for me. But you’re right, a lot of people, including those with mental health issues, can benefit immensely from meditation practice. That’s why we teach it, don’t we? 🙂

      I’ve added Siegel’s book to my to-read list. Thanks for the recommendation.

      By the way, I’ve just taken a look at your website : I love the breathing videos (and I must say I’m biased towards Pachelbel’s Canon).

      Thanks again for your comment, and happy to meet a fellow TMI teacher 🙂

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