Mental Health and Dhamma Teachers

I wanted to broach what I consider to be an important topic with regards to those who teach the dhamma(monks and lay persons).
 
For many reasons, most of them unfounded, people tend to put a lot of stock in someone who is considered a dhamma teacher, whether in robes or not. They put them on a pedestal, often as someone “higher” and “wiser”. They will ask them about the most important life questions and, due to human nature, wish to have someone “more wise then them” who can tell them what is best to do in their own lives.
 
This is best represented in a funny Ajahn Brahm line where he says ” people always ask monks about all kinds of life problems, even marriage, why are you asking me about marriage.. I’m a monk!”
 
For those of us who are put up on the pedestal to answer these questions, it can be quite the dangerous position, because a person who is willing to give over agency to “someone wiser”, also gives over responsibility to them, so if advice goes wrong, who will be blamed?
 
Many vulnerable people come looking for wisdom to the dhamma, including those who have the whole range of mental health issues, from PTSD to Schizophrenia. Those who teach the dhamma need to make sure that they answer questions related to these issues with great care.
 
I’m not a mental health professional, and don’t have the qualifications to be one, but for almost a decade I worked with said professionals and people with every kind of mental health issue. I think this gives me a sensitivity towards this issue that most would not have. When I hear a dhamma teacher be dismissive and flippant with questions regarding mental health, it bothers me, because I understand the power said teachers have on vulnerable people.
 
A prime example of my point for this post was a year ago after being a Samanera barely a month, I did my first dhamma talk. At the end of that retreat I had a woman come up to me and talk to me. Throughout the course of the discussion I found out her mental health diagnosis, as well as her medications, and then was not all that surprised when the gist of the conversation was moving towards her looking for some kind of validation, from some guy in robes, to stop taking her medications and replace them with meditation….
 
From my experience I am well aware that often times medications for mental health issues can do more harm then help, they have unpleasant side effects, and most people dislike taking them, but even still a dhamma teacher needs to be very careful with this. I would say never ever go against the advice/care of professionals. You can add some dhamma in there, some advice and tips, but do it as something to be done IN CONJUNCTION with their clinical treatment.
 
One of the things I’ve learned is that it is OK, and actually PREFERABLE, to say ” i don’t know”. when it comes down to it, don’t feel like you have to give them some kind of answer, if you feel that what you say might be detrimental.
 
At the very least, those who teach dhamma need to be very vigilant to make sure that if we cannot help, we at least do no harm, and leave what is professional to the professionals.
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