The Hidden Breakthroughs In Our Breakdowns

What we’re missing in the mental health crisis.

According to the CDC, nearly one quarter of American adults are now taking prescription drugs for mental health conditions. And yet, even as mental health treatments have become more accessible, mental health outcomes — in the form of increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide — have gotten worse. That’s the subject of a new book, Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health, by Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist who for 13 years was the director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “Put simply, the mental health problem is medical,” he writes, “but the solutions are not just medical — they are social, environmental, and political.” And, I would argue, spiritual.

There’s a reason why one of the central components of Alcoholics Anonymous is the belief in “a Power greater than ourselves.” It’s not denominational and it’s not dogmatic. It’s about defining that higher power as we understand it. What that allows us to do is place our lives in a larger perspective, creating vital connections, giving and receiving support, and building community with others who are doing the same. By connecting with a power greater than ourselves, we nurture the power within ourselves to change. In 2020, a study by researchers from Stanford found that AA was more effective than other forms of therapy in helping people achieve sobriety and stick with it. 

What’s clear is that the mental health crisis is a downstream symptom of a larger crisis: a crisis of meaning, a crisis of a world in need of spiritual renewal. We’re in the middle of multiple breakdowns, which often throughout history precede much needed breakthroughs.

But at the moment, it’s the breakdowns that are most visible. We see the effects of these breakdowns not just in the human toll of the mental health crisis, but in the rising rates of stress and burnout and a general coarsening of behavior. As David Brooks wrote, “something darker and deeper seems to be happening as well — a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility. This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.”

“Everything is falling apart,” Serene Jones, Union Theological Seminary President, said, “and something new is emerging… the new can’t emerge without the old breaking down… I have never felt more strongly that, at a spiritual level, each and every one of us is called to serve as midwives to this birth.” 

The breakthroughs are less obvious. But in times of profound transformation, they never are. People living through the Reformation or the Renaissance were not exactly going around patting each other on the back saying, “wow, isn’t it great to be living at a time when so much of our old era is falling away and so much new is being born?” 

The pandemic has only intensified this transition. As Yale historian Frank Snowden put it, “Epidemic diseases reach into the deepest levels of the human psyche. They pose the ultimate questions about death, about mortality: What is life for? What is our relationship with God?” And more and more people are asking these deeper questions. 

As we’re going through the pandemic’s portal to something new, what’s different about the renewed interest in these questions is that this time they’re not tied to any one particular dogma or organized religion. This transformation is very personal — based on the same process of renewal that’s at the heart of every major spiritual and philosophical tradition.

As Bruce Feiler wrote in Life Is in the Transitions, “Most major religions include the idea that significant human breakthroughs include periods of disconnection and disorientation. Hindus call this phase forest dwelling; the Abrahamic faiths liken it to desert dwelling. Abraham goes forth into the unknown; Moses leads the Israelites into the wilderness; Jonah disappears into the whale; Jesus goes into the desert; Muhammad retreats to the mountaintop.” Similarly, he writes, we as individuals experience “lifequakes”: experiences of crisis and disruption that present opportunities to connect with the core of who we are. 

This longing to connect to something larger than ourselves is universal. It’s the fourth instinct we all share, beyond the instincts of survival, sex and power. It’s our relentless drive for meaning, for purpose, for self-discovery, for becoming. It connects us both to each other and to ourselves. In more stable times, this longing may lie dormant. In times of crisis and constant disruption, it rises to the surface.

Far from the cliché of spirituality being a retreat from life, this new period of spiritual exploration is deeply engaged in social justice and the political challenges we’re facing. “Understanding religion’s immense power and influence might just help us identify how to wield it toward a different, more equitable future,” writes Phillip Picardi, who at 28 left a very successful career in journalism at Teen Vogue, Them and Out to go back to school and get a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard Divinity School. “It was a way to hop completely off the career track and see where my spirit, not my ego, wants to take me,” he wrote

For Picardi and for many others across many demographics, religion isn’t a flight from the conflicts tearing apart our society, but an essential tool to address them. “How do we say no to evil if we do not believe in the possibility, indeed the reality, of good?” wrote Serene Jones. “How do we resist the corrupting power of greed if we have no spiritual sense that generosity and justice are ultimately more important?” As she told me, “I deeply believe that until we do the spiritual work needed to change our deepest narratives about the meaning of our lives, we are destined to keep repeating behaviors that miss the point of ‘life’ completely.” 

The centrality of love and grace in our spiritual transformation is not just the province of theologians. As U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said, “at the heart of so many spiritual traditions and so many cultures is the idea that, as human beings, our value is rooted in our ability to give and receive love.”

The idea of love as the necessary catalyst for renewal has a long history in America’s fight for justice. “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” wrote James Baldwin. “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” As Rev. Martin Luther King put it, “Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”

To bring about a collective transformation, we have to start with our personal transformation. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” The breakdowns are all around us. And so too are elements of the breakthroughs — even if we see them more in what people are rejecting than in what they are ready to embrace.


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