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How Religious Themes Can Aid Those With Mental Illness

Religious experience can remind us that we are not alone in a divided world.

Key points

  • Religion means “to bind,” a significant perspective for those suffering from mental illness and loneliness.
  • Judgment can often coincide with religious experiences, but it doesn’t have to.
  • Religious practices can provide some spiritual context for sufferers.

You are already a child of God, equipped with everything you need to begin resonating with the divine. That does not mean you are morally or psychologically perfect. Not at all. But you will now have the freedom to see such failings in yourself, to grow and to love better because of them. (Rohr, 2009, p. 104)

Richard Rohr (2009) reminds us that religion is not so much about going to a particular location as it involves our ability to love—ourselves included—and to love well. Let's examine how the nature of religion and spirituality invites us all to connect, to love without judgment, and to practice what we preach.

Source: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash
Religion and spirituality call us into relationships with ourselves, the divine, nature, and each other.
Source: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

Religion = Connection

The term religion comes from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind” and leading to a sense of living under a sense of reverence or vows. This context seems to aptly describe human experience in much of contemporary society, divided in many aspects and seeking to unify for a greater purpose or sense of meaning. Today, we tend to capitalize descriptors of organized religions to denote characteristics, values, and beliefs unique to them (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.). Spirituality describes how the unique soul of a person is in relationship with others and the divine. Here, I will refer to organized religion with “religion” and individual experiences of the soul with “spirituality.”

If religious experience is about binding to certain sets of values and beliefs, and spirituality is about relationships concerning the soul, then both religion and spiritual practices can enhance our relationships with ourselves and with each other. Think about it. Nurturing the relationship of our soul with the divine is critical to transform ourselves. Our hearts must change first before our minds, relationships, communities—and mental disorders—can (May, 2003). Even outside of organized religion, individuals can be reminded of something greater than themselves, that their task is not to judge others. When we judge others and ourselves, we divide instead of unify.

Loving Without Judgment

How can individuals diagnosed with a mental disorder learn to love and not be judgmental of themselves? When living with a disorder, we tend to feel isolated from others, thinking everyone else is somehow normal and that perhaps we have been abandoned (Culkin, 2016; May 2003). In this context, we can judge ourselves to be the cause of this loneliness, that we are somehow unworthy of love.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an American author and monk, was a keen observer of divine love's unifying power regardless of one’s religious status.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. (Merton, 1974, p. 345)

Put another way, anyone can have a religious experience that reminds them of their own humanity and divinity—and that of everyone else. Realizing that every human being has a bit of the divine in them can alter our spiritual perspective in how we treat our sacred selves.

That said, it can be difficult for many people to love and not judge themselves. Entertaining intrusive thoughts and other obsessions based on fears can amplify this challenge. People with mental disorders can seek love and compassion just as much as anyone else. There are as many ways to do so as there are individuals. Some may find solace in structured self-compassion programs while others may also use contemplative practices, religious faith, therapy, exercise, yoga, and related practices, or a combination thereof to center themselves. For more details and references, please check out my Psychology Today blogs on related themes: love in relationships (2024) and self-compassion (2023).

Some Helpful Spiritual Practices

Religious practices can affect mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) by providing some spiritual perspective at both individual and social levels. As discussed previously, how we view our relationship with the divine influences our relationships with ourselves and others. Rumi (1207-1273 CE), a Sufi mystic, captured the essence of this spiritual viewpoint:

The way you see is the measure of the world,
Your imperfections are the veil.
Wash your senses with the water of the spirit,
As the Sufis wash their garments.

When purified, the spirit will unblind you,
And you’ll see with the eye of loveliness.
(Rumi, 2000)

In other words, enhancing your spirituality and religious practices can help clarify how you approach mental disorders in your relationships.

Most religions embrace processes or rituals that, in some way, seek to enhance communities of peace among their practitioners and with the world around them. The concept of Tikkun ha-Olam has evolved in Judaism, for example, as a mandate for humankind to restore a broken world (Drob, 2001). Several Christian concepts have emerged over time to address the tensions that many with mental disorders face, e.g., good versus evil, God’s presence in daily life, how to pray, and suffering. In The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald May (2004) looks at spiritual development from a psychiatrist’s point of view. Rohr (2009) is a respected theologian who advocates non-dualistic thinking to understand nuanced spiritual dilemmas. Additionally, I have written here about the nature of spiritual love in relationships (Culkin, 2024).


We considered how the nature of religion and spirituality invites us to connect for a greater purpose, to love without judgment, and to practice what we preach. People suffering with mental illnesses, such as OCD, often confront similar challenges that—without the support of loved ones—can seem daunting. When we “bind” ourselves to each other in solidarity, focusing more on what unites us than what divides us, we will be stronger individually and relationally.


Culkin, D. (2016). A Need to Heal: An Autoethnographic Bildungsroman Through the Shadows [dissertation]. Kansas State University.

Culkin, D. (2023, December 2). Self-compassion in Relationships [blog]. Psychology Today at

Culkin, D. (2024, March 15). The Evolution of Love in Relationships [blog]. Psychology Today at

Drob, S. (2001). Tikkun ha-Olam: The Restoration of the World. The Lurianic Kabbalah. Retrieved on May 31, 2024, at

Google Dictionary. Religion. Retrieved 24 May 2024.

May, G. (2003). The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. HarperOne.

Merton, T. (1974). A Member of the Human Race. In T. McDonnell (Ed.), A Thomas Merton Reader (Revised ed.), pp. 345-347. Image. Citing original from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966).

Rohr, R. (2009). The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. Crossroad.

Rumi, (2000). The Illustrated Rumi: A Treasury of Wisdom from the Poet of the Soul. HarperOne.

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