Religious experience or psychiatric symptom?
This seminar took place on Thursday 27 February 2014, 4.30-6pm at Durham University.
ANDREW SIMS, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PSYCHIATRY, UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS AND PAST PRESIDENT OF THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF PSYCHIATRISTS
Most people have some awareness of a spiritual dimension in life and many people will at some time suffer mental disturbance or illness. These experiences may appear quite similar to the observer, can they be told apart?
In the vast majority of situations, it is not difficult to distinguish what is religious or spiritual from what is mental or psychiatric. However, as both are common conditions of mankind, they will frequently coincide – spiritual and psychiatric. From the professional standpoint of the psychiatrist, the most useful tool for differentiation is descriptive psychopathology – what this thought or behaviour means to the person him- or herself. There are usually different patterns for religious experience from mental illness. Of course, it is extremely important that psychiatrists and other mental health professionals be well-informed on the diversity of religion and spirituality in different cultures and religious traditions.
Pointers to probable mental illness will be discussed: these help someone confronted with bizarre behaviour or statement in a person they are caring for to identify the need for further expert involvement. Indicators of probable religious experience but of an unusual kind are consistent with the rest of that person’s lifestyle and their religious social community.
It is generally possible to distinguish religious or spiritual experience from mental illness or psychiatric symptoms. It is important always to remember that both may be present in the same person at the same time.
Professor Andrew Sims has been practising psychiatry for 50 years. He is a previous chairman of the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Past President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Leeds. He has had a long term interest in the interface between faith and mental illness, and has published on this topic including Is Faith Delusion? and joint editor with Professor Cook and Dr Powell of Spirituality and Psychiatry.