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How I Experienced Religious Discrimination During Mental Health Treatment

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I have struggled with anxiety and depression for years, and I began practicing Zen meditation in 2011 as a way of coping. In the spring of 2019, what I had been struggling with was given a name; I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This was no surprise and I was actually relieved to receive that diagnosis.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

2019 had a rough start for a number of reasons. I admitted myself into a hospital for the second time in my life because of anxiety, depression and mania among other things. I don’t feel the need to get into great detail about that, but I wanted to address something that might sound kind of funny. That is, western medicine’s bias toward Christianity. Although I respect both the Christian religion and the advances of western medicine, there came a point where I felt disrespected because my beliefs did not coincide with theirs.

I had a bit of an epiphany while at the hospital that I attribute to my Zen practice. I originally thought this little Zen epiphany was something significant but was told by a Zen teacher, whom I have been in touch with off and on for a few years, that it was a realization every “bodhisattva” ever had experienced. (A bodhisattva is often considered a follower of Buddhist teaching, which in my mind is a little different from saying, “I am Buddhist.” After all, one can be a Zen practitioner without being Buddhist.) I realized I could take the experiences of my own suffering and use it in a way to relieve the suffering of others. I could help people.

It is no mystery that people who struggle with mental illness are often misunderstood and treated as “abnormal.” What some people don’t really witness as often is that they are often misunderstood and treated as abnormal even in the environments which are meant to be healing for them. I felt that the other patients in the hospital and I were being disrespected and dehumanized in a fairly significant way. I addressed the issue by speaking with the person who was in charge of patient mistreatment. I spoke to her about how I felt we were in many ways not being treated as human beings. I also made the mistake of trying to explain the Zen epiphany I experienced. Even though it wasn’t anywhere near as significant as I made it out to be, and my anxiety/mania didn’t help with it, she said, “You’re delusional,” and that my meditation practice was “…all bullshit.” I recall her specifically saying those things about me and my meditation practice.

I will admit I was in the hospital for a reason, but looking back on that experience, it wasn’t OK. It wasn’t even remotely OK. Firstly, I wasn’t entirely delusional. The experience I had (though not as significant as I thought) was a common experience that many have had. Secondly, meditation isn’t “…all bullshit.” In fact, many forms of therapy and commonly taught coping skills, including mindfulness, have their roots in Buddhist and meditation practices.

The first time I experienced religious and spiritual prejudice or bias was while I was in high school. I was told I was going to hell because I was raised Catholic. Ironically, that bullying ultimately led to my first hospitalization. Now, I was in the hospital again, being treated as though I was “crazy” because I claimed my Zen practice helped me realize I could use my suffering to help others. They encouraged me to see their chaplain, who they claimed had no specific religious affiliation. In other words, she was a nondenominational Christian. I must admit, I liked her as she didn’t treat me the same way as the other people at the hospital.

It’s sad because this was my experience both during my first time in the hospital and during this one. The first time, they too thought my Catholic roots were one of the major causes of my struggles, so they had me speak to the chaplain. This time around, it was my Zen epiphany and explaining how I felt about the treatment of patients. Again, I was sent to the chaplain. It seems a common practice that when one doesn’t understand or cannot relate to someone’s spiritual or religious practices, they try to convert them to their own or presume they’re just “crazy.” I don’t believe this is OK. Not even remotely.

Photo by Afonso Coutinho on Unsplash

Originally published: January 16, 2020
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