The Effects of Faith on Bipolar - and Bipolar on Faith

Faith and Bipolar Can Intertwine Well or Badly
Faith can have a profound effect on people with bipolar disorder - and bipolar can have a profound effect on faith as well.. Stuart Dee / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

A reader says: "I was manic a few months back, and I had many weird and strange beliefs. One was it was the end of the world, another that the moon was going to fall, and another it was the rapture and Jesus was coming. I really believed in them all, and now since I'm back to earth and reality, I am really confused about everything I've been taught in church. Has anyone felt as I did, leading to confusion about what you've been taught?"

One of the possible symptoms of mania is increased religious zeal and/or involvement. One study of patients with schizophrenia found that 24% of the subjects had religious delusions, and those that did appeared to be more severely ill than those who did not. Another study found that one-third of patients with psychosis, including patients with bipolar disorder, had religious delusions. Still another concluded, "Religious delusion is among the central symptoms of severe psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective, and bipolar disorder at the acute phase."

Religion can interact with mental disorders in both amazing and shocking ways, especially when taken to extremes. It might be the sturdy, comforting rock of faith that offers hope during one’s deepest, darkest moments; or, it could become the root of dangerous psychotic delusions that contradict the teachings of one’s own faith.

Personal accounts from readers come from all across the spectrum. Most of us find it acceptable to pray in church on Sundays, but if the urge to do so strikes one in the middle of the airport, it hardly signifies a delusion. Reader Christallin explained how faith can sometimes be confused for psychotic behavior simply because others aren’t used to seeing it:

“People who are close to God want to pray whenever the Spirit leads them. I have prayed out loud and with others at what may have appeared to be strange times. I wasn’t psychotic, I am a person of faith.”

On the other hand, if someone suddenly stands on a chair in the airport and begins haranguing fellow passengers about religion, shouting at the top of his lungs and refusing to be quieted, resisting security officers, etc., the presence of a mental illness is certainly possible.

Religion can offer a set of moral beliefs and a foundation for hope that empowers individuals to face their mental disorders head on. Reader Chris exemplifies the effect this sort of positivity can have:

“My belief in God sustains me even during my darkest hours. He strengthens me to engage in this Bipolar II battle. And He has helped me by getting me to a good doctor. That is God. I have had nothing but positive experiences with God since I became a Christian 26 years ago. There is a great difference between a belief, faith, and a delusion. I’m happy to know the Lord. And I will tell anyone about who cares to hear and I will pray out loud when I feel like it. Amen!”

Yet not everyone benefits from the same mindset. Sometimes religious beliefs can spiral out of control rapidly during fits of mania or depression resulting from bipolar. Reader Shawn comes from a Baptist background that greatly influenced several of his family members, including himself, in their delusional behavior:

“I experienced religion as a major part of my first and second psychoses - almost a good versus evil type thing. My mother did during hers also. Her brother thought if he jumped off a ten story building, angels would catch him. He lived, surprisingly, but was in a wheelchair for the remainder of his short life.”

Clearly, not everyone who believes in angels is going to jump off a building. But when a fanatical sense of faith combines with a mind prone to delusional thought, the results can be disastrous – as seen above with Shawn’s brother.

Mania and delusional thinking may also make an individual more prone to becoming a victim of cult behavior. Another reader, Mrs. King, left her career, husband and family behind to join a commune and follow a false guru during a manic episode.

“Looking back, I know I was manic when I was led to join a cult.

“I was at the top of my career when I was attracted to a commune led by a guru. I left my husband, my family, my job, my car and all of my friends to join this group.

“I thought I was devoting my life wholly to God. What could be more important in life than pursuing God continually. Unimaginable things happened during this experience. I tried to escape twice, before being released after they realized they couldn’t keep me.

“My mother took me back. I was a thin as a rail. I had lost everything. Soon after, I was led to the truth that God didn’t require all of this of me. That what I had been taught all of my life was true. That I can’t “work” my way to heaven. Only by trust in God can I have assurance that my life now is pleasing to Him.

“It was just one of the extreme experiences I’ve had with this disorder called bipolar.”

As mentioned above, studies on the subject have found that religious delusions can account for about a third of all psychoses, and those individuals who have them are generally more severely mentally ill than others. But that doesn’t mean those suffering from religious delusions should become atheists (though some do, and we don’t mean to criticize their choice). Mrs. King didn’t abandon her beliefs when she came out of her manic state, instead learning to channel her thoughts in a healthier way, suggesting that with a little extra time and effort, faith can be turned back into a rock even for those who have strayed from the path.

Read more on religion and mental illness in the links below:

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