Peterson: Spirituality plays role in mental wellness

I don’t believe in a God who consigns certain people to tragic lives of pain and suffering while rewarding others with strength and fullness.

I believe in a God who loves all of his creations, especially those he created in his own likeness, humans, the billions of us who live separate lives that cover the full range of the human condition. Rich and poor, good and bad, happy and sad, well and ill, White Sox and Cub. None exactly alike.

Together, we experience humanity in our unique ways.

Together, we are blessed by God, and we nurture those blessings.

We are not cursed.

But some of us experience life accompanied by physical and mental illnesses, and, as May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to address mental illnesses and spirituality. The two are not mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand to enrich our lives, hard though that may be to see sometimes.

Spirituality helps answer the “why” in our lives.

The Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health promotes Wellness Recovery Action Planning, an educational program to teach people how to live with mental illnesses. It is deemed an “evidence-based practice” by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal government’s approval for programs backed up by research.

Wellness Recovery Action Planning was developed by Mary Ellen Copeland in Vermont, and the program has spread across the country and around the world over the past 20 years. It has Five Key Concepts to undergird it: hope, personal responsibility, support, education and self-advocacy.

Nanette Larson, director of Recovery Support Services for the state Division of Mental Health, brought Wellness Recovery Action Planning to Illinois about 10 years ago. Larson trained facilitators, and the program spread across Illinois. More than 200 facilitators have been trained; I am among them.

But it soon became apparent the key concepts were not enough in Wellness Recovery classes around Illinois. The questions that surfaced time and again were: Where is God to be found? Where is spirituality?

Larson proposed that spirituality be added to the key concepts. While Copeland did not change the key concepts, she allowed Wellness Recovery Action Planning in Illinois to add spirituality and still remain part of the program. Illinois calls them the Foundational Principles of Recovery.

It is not an endorsement of religion, but a recognition that spirituality matters in wellness. Spirituality is defined as: “Finding meaning and purpose in life. Gaining a sense of identity, which may include one’s relationship with the divine or a power greater than oneself.” For many people, it was the “God particle.”

Studies link physical and mental wellness to faith. The studies show that worship practices help people live healthier lives. Things such as gratitude lists remind us how blessed we are, that the world isn’t such a cruel place after all.

“Religious/spiritual beliefs and practices are commonly used by both medical and psychiatric patients to cope with illness and other stressful life changes,” Harold G. Koenig of Duke University Medical Center wrote in a 2012 peer-reviewed article in ISRN Psychiatry. “A large volume of research shows that people who are more [religious/spiritual] have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less [religious/spiritual].”

In our own ways, we all seek meaning and purpose in our lives, the very essence of spirituality. Meaning and purpose help us answer the existential “why” questions. They might lead us into a relationship with the divine or a power greater than ourselves.

In my cultural tradition, the divine is God seen through the lens of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And God is good, although I might ask questions or have feelings that defy easy ecclesial answers.

I have mental illnesses that don’t always fit into neat categories or make me feel better because I have prayed or studied or meditated. Some days are a struggle despite my best intentions.

But I know myself well enough to stick with those prayers, studies and meditations because they hasten clarity, they give me hope, they heighten my personal responsibility. And they help me feel better through the perspective they offer. Relief will arrive.

We don’t live in a spiritual vacuum. We need to take care of our whole beings as described by the Foundational Principles of Recovery. We cannot lose sight of hope in better things to come. We need to be responsible for our actions without forgetting that our chances of success are less without the support of others. We also need to educate ourselves about our illnesses. We need to stand up for ourselves and be our own best advocates, too.

But for most of us, the “God particle” cannot be neglected but must be nurtured. Our good health depends on it.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer, and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He may be contacted at

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