National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from FaithNet NAMI

Holy Week Can Give Perspective on Mental Illness, Regardless of Religion or Spirituality

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations


For many people, March 24-30, is a holy week. On March 25, there is the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Holy Week ultimately culminates in Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Both holidays reflect themes of renewal through “liberation” and “resurrection” that resonate with hopes for recovery held by individuals and families affected by mental illness. Each year, the precise dates for each holiday depend on seasonal lunar cycles, which also guided earlier pagan celebrations of “rebirth.”

In 2009, NAMI published a study which found that almost 30 percent of individuals living with depression indicated that religion or spiritual practices were very helpful in treating their condition. About 7 percent of the respondents considered spiritual observance their primary form of treatment. In recognition of the spiritual contribution of hope and faith to recovery, NAMI provides its own FaithNet resources.

On the other hand, the season can challenge one’s faith.

Each year’s dates for Passover and Easter are determined by lunar cycles; observances often take place in April. Yet as poet T.S. Eliot once wrote: “April is the cruelest month.” He might have been referring to the erratic change of seasons, where a warm sunny day may be followed by one of snow; however, the paradox also applies to suicide rates—which contrary to popular belief, peak in the spring, rather than winter. (One theory is that for a person who’s been severely depressed in winter, increased energy leads to action.)

Another paradox is the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” and their implications for mental health.

Earlier this year, CNN reported on a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry that found that people who are spiritual, but not religious, are more likely to develop mental illness or drug addiction.

Religion generally refers to “going to church” as part of an organized community or institutional community, while spirituality is more individualistic, involving belief in a high power or blending elements from different religions. 

Approximately one-third of Americans consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. However, among the “millennial generation” (ages 18 to 29), almost 75 percent consider themselves spiritual, but not religious.

Belief in a God may not be the issue, however, so much as specific practices. Elements of religion that may make a difference in helping a person include connection—social support—within a community and organized prayer rituals.

None of these concerns can be resolved in a single week, but it is important to keep in mind that faith is a foundation for hope. Even if a person’s struggle with mental illness continues through the Passover or Easter season, with renewal or rebirth remaining elusive, there are the words of an even earlier poet, Alexander Pope, to remember.

“Hope springs eternal.”

Don’t ever give up. No matter how bad things get, they can still get better. Hold fast to faith.