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Mental illness as a form of demonic possession/oppression?


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#21 Father David Moser

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:57 PM

I have to agree with Owen - all mental illness has some kind of demonic/sinful component. We know from scripture that the evil one can cause physical illness in a person (see Job) when then suggests that a "chemical imbalance in the brain" can be set off by such an action on the part of the devil. And we know that the evil one is constantly looking for some weakness to exploit that will make us susceptible to temptation. "Mental illness" (which is actually a constellation of various conditions that affect the mental state and outlook of a person) is one of those "weak points" that can be exploited.

There are basically two types of mental illness: the "psychotic" disorders and the "affective" disorders. These two types of illnesses both are related to the fall of man. Psychosis affects the barriers between the spiritual world and the physical world which were put in place by God after the fall to protect man from the delusion of demons. When that barrier is corrupted or broken down, then the person is exposed to perceptions of the spiritual world which have no cognitive context and thus become confusing and usually frightening. The most obvious form of such a breakdown is when the physical senses perceive spiritual images and which we often call "hallucinations". The less obvious form is when the perception and interpretation of the environment is corrupted and erroneous beliefs are adopted by the mind and these are often called "delusions". The affective disorders affect mood and are an exaggeration of the passions or a breakdown of the person's ability to control the passions. These different expressions of mental illness are not exclusive and can occur discretely, independent of others, but more often together such that one exacerbates the other (for example when auditory hallucinations contribute to and reinforce a depression leading to despair and suicide.)

This does not mean that all mental illness is demonic possession - simply that it opens the door for demonic manipulation of the person. Why "possess" a person when a simple distraction will do to derail their spiritual life. Because of the close connection between the soul and the body, manipulation of the physical condition can affect the soul (and vice versa). By addressing the "chemical imbalance in the brain" with medication, some of these opened doors and corrupted spiritual mechanisms can be fixed and the symptoms of the mental illness can be allieviated or at least toned down to a manageable level. (OTOH, some drugs can exacerbate the degeneration of the spiritual/physical barriers or elevate the intensity of the passions - thus the sinful nature of "recreational" drug use. But that's a different discussion). Mental illness is not the equivalent of demonic possession (however neither does it exclude that possibility) but it is a condition that opens certain avenues for demonic activity, temptation and deception.

I want to make a comment about the experiences of the saints who also transcend the barriers between this world and the spiritual world. Their experience (which is open to all of us in fact given the proper spiritual maturity and development) is not the result of a breakdown of the barriers, but rather the result of the development and training within the tradition of the Church of the proper use of our soul's spiritual senses. These visions of the spiritual world will not lead them astray since they have two very important elements - first they have learned and incorporated the true context for these experiences so that they can be seen not in the darkness of sin, but in the light of Christ and second they have a close relationship with their guardian angel, with the saints and with God Himself so that they are not left alone as the prey of demonic temptation. This is the outcome of the exercise of self denial and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit to which we are all called (but which most of us have not yet achieved in sufficient measure).

I think that a properly written thesis or book on the relationship between neurobiology and the spiritual world such as Magdelene suggests could function to provide a base for a more compassionate and aggressive understanding of mental illness in the Church. I have had such conversations with other professionals (therapists, psychiatrists, neurosurgeons, etc) and they always prove to be fascinating.

Fr David Moser

#22 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:27 PM

In relation to the devil's attempts to deceive us and lead us into sin, does the devil know our minds? Can he read our thoughts? (The Book of Job suggests that he cannot since he did not know that Job would not sin.) And since there are so many people can he do this to so many all at once or is he helped by his demons?

And in this fallen world, is anyone really free of some measure of mental illness even if it is so small as not to be counted as such? What is 'normal'?

#23 M. T. Magdalene Noah

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 07:12 PM

Here is a helpful website. :)
http://www.antiochian.org/node/22478

The person above was clearly bothered by the demons. Praise God that our Mother took care of it! Some of us are allowed to suffer, as St Paul suffered the thorn in his side. I don't know why I'm allowed by our Lord to stay sick, but I am. I am grateful for the opportunity to grow in humility and love for my fellows. Besides, it gives me the wonderful chance to write for His Purposes, whatever those are.

#24 Lakis Papas

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 12:44 AM

I have personal experience with mental illness, especially with schizophrenia, not as a patient but as a visitor to clinics and mental institutions.

There is a wide spectrum of mental illnesses that are hereditary conditions. These are gene related conditions. There are many well documented medical papers which support this finding. I think these cases are like other diseases and have nothing to do with spiritual conditions (other than all maladies are aftereffects of fall).

On the other hand, there are many mental patients whose condition is not related to genetic justification. And there are other patients whose condition is related to brain damage in accidents. These patients present (in most cases) the same biological and clinical morphology with the gene related patients. So, there is a homomorphism between the inherited and the non-inherited conditions.

There is a portion of mentally ill people that do not have the capacity for logical train of thought. These are incurable cases and they are caused by neurological incompetence or brain defects.

But mental patients in general (and especially schizophrenic patients) are capable to think in normal way and to successfully complete normal logical processes. Their problem is that they try hard to discern the actual reality from the distorted reality that is presented to them by their unbridled fantasy. And when their fantasy prevails, their logical response to a non-real perceivable environment is making them to act accordingly. Mental patients (in general) do not differ in the way that they make decisions and in the way that they counteract from healthy people. A mental patient perceives as true a strong fantasy that may be an image, or an idea,or an estimation and then he acts accordingly in a normal way. The result may be to panic, or to be aggressive, or to be depressed, and generally to adopt some extreme behavior, but this extreme behavior is the appropriate reaction for the perceived "reality". There are some cases of mental patients that react overwhelmingly and these cases are explained by chemicals disequilibrium in their brain.

Sometimes, the lasting experience of such fictitious reality make patients to develop strange brain functions, inconceivable by a healthy brain. For example, a schizophrenic patient may say that his brain is "spinning", an experience that has nothing to do with the experiences that a healthy brain knows about.

In a christian way of analyzing the matter, a schizophrenic patient is not acting according to an excessive passion, on the contrary his actions are absolutely justifiable (by the "reality" of the world that he is living in). He is even excusable for the legal system.

Having said all the above, I do not understand how devil gains something out of somebody's mental illness. When a person is irresponsible even for the most condemnable actions, why devil bothers bringing him in that condition?

I try to understand Fr David Moser's statement regarding devil: "Why "possess" a person when a simple distraction will do to derail their spiritual life". I can not understand it. I understand that the derail of spiritual life is not a condemning factor for mental patients. Even more, I think that even the possession of a person is not a condemning factor for that person (but this issue is for another thread).

Edited by Lakis Papas, 11 November 2012 - 01:18 AM.
typo


#25 Owen Jones

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 01:20 PM

First of all, in Christian diagnoses,there is no condemnation, period. One of the interesting aspects of most people with mental disorders (as noted, we all are "mental" to some degree, showing the exact same symptoms), is that they tend to take an objective diagnosis as a personal threat. Interesting. There really are two issues here: the theoretical (mostly having to do with causality) and the practical. There can be a range of theories regarding causality, but as a practical matter, a proper spiritual discipline, even with the toughest cases, always seems to help. In the moderate cases -- let's use Fr. David's term "affective," it can actually be a cure. So the problem arises when there is undue focus on causality, which often seems to only benefit the professional clinician, but offers little or no solution to the patient. The theory of the theory is that by revealing the causality to the patient, it produces some kind of breakthrough and he is supposed to get better -- i.e. revealing the causality unhinges the neurosis. While what the patient really needs is to know is "what should I do?" The problem is that, with a spiritual cure, it is not something that you can simply prescribe and the patient takes the prescription home and takes it. And even in the cases of people with a strong desire to take the spiritual cure, we all know from everyday experience that a spiritual discipline is a life long application, and some people are more receptive than others. It's no different than the underlying theme is most Monachos threads: for some people the truth is pretty obvious, attractive, and worth applying diligently, whereas for others there is profound disagreement or resistance. And one of the typical symptoms of virtually all extreme mental disorders is a penchant to over analyze everything. Mental cases love to engage in endless analysis. Kind of makes you wonder about demonic influence there.

Regarding the really tough cases that are the result of some permanent brain trauma or some genetic source, some spiritual regimen can in most cases help. But where the Church really has a role to play is in the "affective" cases. In fact, by offering a spiritual model to the world, this is an area where the Orthodox faith has the most to offer. But offering only a model of recovery is a bit like offering a starving person a map that requires him to walk to the shore where he is supposed to commandeer a boat and catch a fish! Or, I am reminded of the Woody Allen movie in which he was thinking about becoming a Catholic, and he leaves the priest's office holding the complete volumes of the Summa Theologica!


Regarding drug therapy, I am working with an individual who is 64 and has been medicated with benzodiazapenes for most of his adult life for PTSD. Currently he is on Klonopin. Without it, he gets night terrors and flashbacks. The problem is that anti-anxiety drugs are like putting a bandaid over an infected, festering wound that is eventually going to spread to the blood stream. The underlying problem is never addressed. By preventing the person from being able to feel the symptoms of the underlying problem, life becomes the illusion of manageability, but he is not really making any progress, and, in fact, there are repeated downward spirals that typically involve getting his hands on other medications. The drug really becomes a tool for the clinician rather than the patient. The problem is that whenever he has run out of the drug and cannot renew his prescription he gets a street drug or drinks or both and his life completely implodes, because he is addicted to the Klonopin and the withdrawal affects are severe. He confuses his withdrawal symptoms with the underlying problem and asserts that it is proof that he has to have the Klonopin in order to manage.

There is a danger involved in deducing universal theories from the evidence of people in a locked up psychiatric ward. You have to be careful applying universal principles based on the most extreme cases. Yet I see this all the time. It's really the only data that psychiatrists have available to them -- they don't follow a patient home to see how he really operates on a daily basis in the real world. It would be interesting if a psychiatrist would take a couple of patients and go live with them in their normal environment for six months. I think if that happened, you would see the psychiatrist throwing out a lot of his theories.

Regarding Mr. Papas' comments on the passions, I think the Patristic concept of the passions fully incorporates his description of fantasy and logical responses. In fact, this process is fully delineated in the Philokalia.

#26 Father David Moser

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 03:39 PM

I would like to remind everyone participating in this conversation that the topic is the relationship between mental illness and demonic possession. I has expanded somewhat to look at the spiritual nature of mental illness from an Orthodox pov. This topic is NOT the place to debate or air the various theories or social concerns about the psychiatric system. I implore all to "stick to the topic" and not get off track into debates and arguments that have nothing at all to do with the Orthodox faith.

Fr David

#27 Owen Jones

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 05:34 PM

Fair enough, Father, although Mr. Papas has expressed skepticism that Orthodoxy has any real application in certain types of mental illness that he has direct experience with, and I think skepticism is certainly a part of any healthy discussion. By Orthodoxy, I deem that inclusive of the idea of demonic influence.

#28 Eric Peterson

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 03:16 AM

St. John Maximovitch said demonic possession and mental illness were two different things, IIRC. I don't have a reference for it, but people like him would know since they have healed both.

#29 M. T. Magdalene Noah

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 05:14 PM

St. John Maximovitch said demonic possession and mental illness were two different things, IIRC. I don't have a reference for it, but people like him would know since they have healed both.


If you read Mother Melania's article in the Antiochian publication WORD on Insanity and Mental Illness According to the Early Fathers, you will find abundant references to the Early Fathers' opinions which echo St John Maximovitch's opinion. Very helpful. Her article is also posted at the Antiochian web site. YOu will find it as an helpful link in one of my previoius posts to this discussion.

Please contact me privately if you would like to contribute in some way to the book I'm writing. Current title is "Neuroscience and the Church Fathers, Past and Present: A Contemporary Eastern Orthodox View on Mental Illness and Demon Possession."

#30 Father David Moser

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 07:57 PM

I
I try to understand Fr David Moser's statement


Perhaps if I might suggest also reading a previous post I made in a different thread which provides some context for my comments The whole thread is a good parallel discussion to this one and worth reading.

In response to the specific question - if the evil one, by simple deception and preoccupation with a physical/emotional condition can distract a person from working out their salvation - then why go to all the trouble of possessing them. Being mentally ill does not preclude salvation, it is simply a barrier presented by the evil one to prevent the person's acquisition of the Holy Spirit and the healing grace of the Spirit. This barrier - like any other temptation or trial - can be overcome by the grace of God and following the direction of our Lord to "deny (your)self, take up (your) cross and follow (Christ)"

Fr David Moser

#31 M. T. Magdalene Noah

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 08:12 PM

I so appreciate your posts, Father David. However, I'd like to point out that Jesus gave us experts in medical science to help ourselves get to a point where we CAN work out out salvation. . . I am indebted to my medications and praise God for their inventors every day. They help tremendously in my ability to focus on what's important. :) And they help me see where I am in relation to my God. I believe my illnesses are a gift from God, not a stumbling block, but I suppose that's just an opinion. I don't like to give the evil one any more accolades than he already gets from the culture. Therefore, God granted me the mercy of being mentally ill, I do not see it as from Satan, because that would, to my uneducated mind, imply that Satan has more or equal authority to my Lord and that's simply not true. Thanks for listening. I hope I have not hurt or offended you. As I said, I am very open to being taught. I just have that difference of opinion abut the origins of my illnesses.

#32 Father David Moser

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 10:51 PM

I so appreciate your posts, Father David. However, I'd like to point out that Jesus gave us experts in medical science to help ourselves get to a point where we CAN work out out salvation. . . I am indebted to my medications and praise God for their inventors every day.


I think this is the point that I was trying to make. Mental illness is essentially just a fact of one's life and can be utilized in working out one's salvation or it can be a barrier (depending on the choices a person makes). Medications are important for "turning down the volume" of symptoms so that they are not an impediment, barrier or distraction. Therapy helps one see their own internal processes as if in a mirror and thus give a person a better grasp of their own life. Rehab teaches tools for addressing symptoms and their effects on a day to day basis. These are all secular processes - valuable and in some cases indispensible. The Church, especially in the sacraments, blessings, rules of prayer, etc gives us other tools and supports us in other ways to address the underlying spiritual condition of our fallen-ness. I suspect we are very much on the same page on this topic. My comments about "barriers" were an attempt to explain how a mental illness can be demonically used to prevent one from pursuing their salvation - but again, its not a necessity that it does.

Fr David

#33 Owen Jones

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Posted 13 November 2012 - 09:26 AM

Not every distinction is absolute. In fact, there are very few in Orthodoxy. Created and Uncreated comes to mind as an absolute distinction. Not a long list. Yet, given the ideological environment, we are taught to think in absolutist terms. Either you are possessed or you are not, for example. According to the Philokalia, just to use one example, it is more subtle than that. It is more a matter of what direction you are headed. And, as I mentioned, it is a fallacy to make policy based on only the extreme cases. I think the real issue is that Orthodoxy has a potentially huge role to play in the healing of mental illness. We are far from having the institutional support for such an approach, but the fact that Orthodox people are having these conversations are a good sign. One thing I think that is missing from the discussion so far is the role of love and forgiveness in the healing of mental illness. The Lord says to forgive seventy times seven. Can you imagine the personal and societal transformation if this were actually imbedded in our culture as the standard?




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