Unity and Mental Health

Published on: November 23, 2015

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The Unity movement is based on the prayerful healing of Myrtle Fillmore from tuberculosis when she realized, and then learned to affirm, “I am a child of God, and therefore I do not inherit sickness.”

For the first hundred years or so of Unity’s healing ministry, mental health problems were treated no differently than physical health issues. In the 1926 edition of Talks on Truth, Charles Fillmore explains to Unity leaders, “Then the first move in all healing is a recognition on your part, and the part of your patient, that God is present as an all-powerful Mind, equal to the healing of every disease, no matter how bad it may appear.”

This way of thinking and healing came to be known as Practical Christianity—applying the principles of putting God first in every circumstance and living the truth as demonstrated by Jesus. It worked wonders in the early days of Unity, and works still today with many illnesses. But the question we face today is: do Unity healing techniques work with mental illnesses?

Mental illness was not even acknowledged as a disease of the mind until Freud brought it to the forefront of medicine in the mid-twentieth century, years after Charles Fillmore had written his teachings on mental health. By 1955, awareness of mental health issues and medical techniques for treating mental illness were becoming widespread in the United States.

How serious is mental illness as a social issue today? Let’s look at some current statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness regarding the current societal crisis in mental health care.

One in every four adults will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. One in 17 adult Americans lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. Almost 60% of adults, and nearly 50% of youth ages 8 to 15, with mental illness, received no treatment in the previous year…. Mood disorders, such as depression, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the United States for both youth and adults. Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions, and adults living with serious mental illness died on average 25 years earlier than other Americans.

These statistics paint a somewhat scary picture of the magnitude of the social problem in America of treating mental illness. How can we Unity ministers, prayer chaplains, and congregations make a difference in the attitudes and belief systems surrounding those who are living with mental illness? Although the world we live in today is very different from the world in which Charles and Myrtle first taught Unity principles, their teachings are still applicable today for addressing mental health issues in our current historical-cultural context.

Let’s consider our third Unity principle, “Human beings create their experiences by the activity of their thinking. Everything in the manifest realm has its beginning in thought.” Its application directly into our human minds is the means of mental focus and discipline to establish whatever life purpose and goals that a person may desire. Does this methodology by which one may move to a greater state of mental stability, wholeness and mental health work if you live with mental illness?

In conjunction with a Unity Institute class for Trends in Contemporary Society, we had a conversation regarding mental health issues with the senior minister of Unity of Kansas City North, Mo., Reverend Myra McFadden. Prior to ministry, Myra was in private practice for many years as a clinical psychotherapist holding a master’s in social work from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

Rev Myra provided an insightful perspective on how Unity has addressed mental health issues past and present, and what she finds effective in her own spiritual community in ministering to those who experience mental illness. Rev Myra advocates both wholeness and authenticity from the Unity community when working with those in her congregations with mental health challenges; what she terms as having “both eyes open.” The spiritual eye, that recognizes and realizes the metaphysical reality of each person as a divine child of Spirit, and the physical eye, which recognizes the current limitations of the human circumstances and realizes a heartfelt expression of caring and concern for those dealing with the difficulties of human existence (in this case mental illness).

She advocates training be given to key leaders in a ministry (including ministers, licensed teachers and prayer chaplains) focusing on preparation for working with those who experience mental illness. Rev Myra has integrated training in her community that includes specific guidelines for how to interface with those who live with mental health issues. She has found it to be extremely helpful in assisting her leaders to provide compassionate and educated care when working with people with mental illness.

In general, there are many resources for Unity spiritual communities to educate and train leaders on mental health issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) holds monthly training and workshops for those who are affected by mental illness in their family or community. They have trained facilitators in most localities. This organization has a wealth of resources for teaching, training and advocating for those experiencing mental illness in your community.

Having resources readily available so you, as a Unity leader or minister, can easily refer someone to get help is particularly vital as we as a society begin to slowly recognize and understand the current crisis of “untreated” mental illness. Having partnerships with local mental health practitioners and social workers is highly recommended. Knowing who to call or who to recommend can be a life-changing, and possibly, a lifesaving event. Recognizing our limitations as spiritual counselors and being able to quickly acknowledge true mental illness can be as important as the actual work we do.

Unity is a spiritual movement that embraces and welcomes people of all denominations, creeds, race, sexual orientation, economic and social backgrounds, and we believe in the power of every individual to heal. Our brothers and sisters experiencing mental illness are no exception, and we can be an important spiritual resource to those among us who are dealing with this. When we can embrace individuals with mental illness with open hearts and open minds, great things can happen. When we train our staff, prayer chaplains, boards and leaders in our community to be especially aware and sensitive to the needs of those among us who may be struggling, then your whole Unity community benefits and grows; we become a compassionate community. Mental illness expresses in so many varied ways; just like each of us, expressing as Spirit.

Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist, had much success in treating those living with mental illness simply because he listened compassionately to them, just as you and I would with any other soul in our community. If you would like or want to discuss how your community or center can establish a compassionate community for those experiencing mental illness, please contact one of the authors of this article.

John Beerman
Rev John C Beerman, MDiv, is also a licensed teacher and former employee benefits consultant. He has served Unity communities as spiritual leader, trustee, speaker and teacher since 1980.
Elise Cowan
Rev Elise Cowan, MDiv, is taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Terrell State Mental Hospital in Texas. She has been published in several Unity inspirational booklets including Advent and Lent.
Michael Perrie
Michael is attending Unity Institute and has served ministries in NC and OR as a trustee, small group leader or ministerial intern. He is also a Religious Science Practitioner and a former business owner. He strives to practice of the Living Presence of Spirit.

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  • Anita Knez

    I would like to suggest a few corrections:

    1) NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness.

    2) The term “mentally challenged” actually refers to a person with a
    developmental or intellectual disability, i.e. an IQ below 70. This is
    very different than someone with a diagnosed mental illness. Using these
    terms interchangeably is incorrect.

    3) Terms such as “mentally ill” and “suffering from mental illness” are
    on the brink of being outdated and no longer politically correct. Those
    terms use an illness to define a person and allow a writer to define
    someone’s experiences- both are things that we in Unity would not wish
    to affirm for someone. Instead, try using ‘person-first’ language (“people with mental illness,” “people experiencing mental illness,” “those living with mental illness,” etc.). This allows us to see people before illness and have that person define their experiences for themselves, both of which reduce social stigma around mental illness.

    Thank you for addressing this issue. Mental illness is a very human experience that is more common than we all think. NAMI is a fantastic organization with many local chapters that can educate people in all communities and is a good resource for ministers, families, and professionals looking for support and information.

  • Bernadette Swanson

    Anita, thank you for your comments. They are most helpful and informative. We have updated the article to correct the inaccuracies and to bring it up to current standards of description/language usage. Thank you for educating and enlightening us.

  • Bernadette Swanson

    Anita, thank you for your comments. They are most helpful and
    informative. We have updated the article to correct the inaccuracies and
    to bring it up to current standards of description/language usage.
    Thank you for educating and enlightening us.

  • Carol Schultz

    I am re-reading this article to find some words to comfort a family as I conduct a memorial service for a wife and mother who just could not cope anymore and took her own life. When the mind is out of balance, it seems hard to remember the truth of your being – the person just can’t seem to believe that they are a Divine Expession of God. I see myself offering assurance to the family that they did do everything they could and that each person is following a soul path of which we are only seeing one small part.
    Thanks for writing about mental illness and for your clarifications, Anita. As an LUT, I am careful in classes how I explain “listening to the inner voice” when I have people in the class that I know or suspect may be dealing with mental instability.