ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Cognitive Techniques Instead of Illicit Drugs

Jack Bragen
Friday March 06, 2015 - 07:40:00 AM

In this week's column I offer a comparison between meditation versus illicit drugs as avenues for relief from the suffering that may accompany a mental illness. I am offering this contrast because, in the case of mental illness, you might need something that offers at least the hope of feeling better. If stuck in pain in the absence of a way out, or even a hoped-for way out, it becomes a lot more of a temptation to use illicit drugs or to take medication not according to the directions.

If you feel okay, the above paragraph does not apply to you.

Cognitive techniques to help deal with mental illness might, by many people, be thought of as out of reach. Many therapists and other mental health professionals might not believe that persons with mental illness have the necessary insight to perform meditation.

Unfortunately, it seems that many people involved in the organized practice of meditation have the same incorrect skepticism. However, gaining an understanding of one's own mind and learning things about what makes it work or not work might be a big help with a lasting and genuine recovery. Additionally, meditation is possible for persons with mental illness.  

My studies of Buddhism date back to the early 1980's, a time when I sought a solution to the predicament of being mentally ill. I read books on the subject of meditation. In addition, I participated in two different meditation groups.  

My definition of "meditation" for purposes of this manuscript is a very loose definition, and can be seen as almost any type of looking inward in an attempt to resolve some of our problems.  

Some mental health consumers have resorted to illicit drugs in an attempt to escape the suffering associated with their illness. This decision probably led them down a less fortunate path. Marijuana, alcohol and other intoxicants might be fine for some people. However, if you are mentally ill, they compound problems created by a neurological vulnerability.  

When a narcotic becomes your primary source of gratification as well as relief, you have a problem. You might be better off not trying hard drugs in the first place, as opposed to becoming addicted and having an internal monstrosity to deal with.  

And yet, I have had my own forms of foolishness. I believed that if I meditated well enough I could cure my illness. I was wrong. Meditation does not fix a neurobiological, chemical imbalance in the brain. Meditation can work as a useful addition to treatment. 

Meditation can help with acceptance of the predicament of being mentally ill, with being disabled, and with having limits to our lives. Meditation can help with accepting ourselves with something society might consider a defect, and appreciating ourselves as valid human beings.  

Meditation can help with the ability to relinquish illusions caused by the illness, illusions that we might otherwise have more difficulty releasing. On the other hand, narcotics are a form of escapism and don't allow us to deal with life.  

The essence of Buddhist and some other types of meditation is to get to the core of suffering. Suffering is often caused by unnecessary fears and desires. Suffering is often caused by not accepting, on an emotional level, how things are. Acceptance doesn’t entail absence of doing something about problems--yet it allows us to have some immunity to some circumstances that are beyond our control. 

Meditation can allow you to experience life without creating as many upset emotions as otherwise. However, improperly done meditation might exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. Before embarking on mindfulness or meditation, consulting a doctor might be a good idea.  

A good start to meditation might be to read books on the subject. Any book by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh or by The Dalai Lama will contain valuable information about meditation.  

There are also alternatives to classic meditation, other cognitive therapies such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (which I have heard about) which is probably very similar to what I am doing. 

There are numerous forms of mindfulness, some of which can be done while sitting in a comfortable chair. Sometimes it is a good form of mindfulness to just sit quietly and look at your emotions. As with any pursuit, it is good to begin at the beginning, which means that one is a student before being a teacher.  

Additional note: If anxious or depressed feelings are too extreme, meditation may not be the appropriate answer, or it may not be the whole answer. If suffering excessively, perhaps it is a good idea to share this with your doctor, who may be able to prescribe an antidepressant or something similar to that. An antidepressant taken under the supervision of a doctor is not the same thing as buying something on the street that hasn't been prescribed.