While I am often critical of the Church’s response to mental illness within their own congregations, especially how we socially respond to the issue, it is no secret that religion and mental health care services benefit from each other.
There is a growing body of evidence that religious involvement is associated with better coping with stress and reductions in depression, suicide, anxiety, and substance abuse. The Huffington Post Canada recently discussed numerous studies about the connection between religion and better mental health outcomes, as well as highlighting several policies of mental health care institutions that support the link.
Religious and spiritual factors are so influential to mental health care that the American College of Graduate Medical Education mandates some training in these areas for all students in its Special Requirements for Residency Training for Psychiatry (Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education, 1994).
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also acknowledges the importance of religion in mental health care for adolescents and young adults.
While these influential institutions have promoted the association between mental health and religion, the growing evidence for the connection is possibly best summed up by a 2011 article in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services:
More than 700 studies have investigated the relationship of religion and mental health, with nearly 500 demonstrating a positive association between the two. Various investigations have shown religious involvement to be positively correlated with well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, hope, optimism, purpose and meaning in life, higher self-esteem, greater social support and less loneliness, lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes toward suicide, less anxiety, less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies, lower rates of alcohol and drug use/abuse, less delinquency and criminal activity, and greater marital stability and satisfaction.
In the end, it is hard to deny that religion plays a vital role in providing positive outcomes for people struggling with mental health issues. The problem at hand isn’t the connection, but how we use religion to fight mental illness and how we respond as a Christian society to those with mental health. Far too often we react to mental illness with stigmatization or shaming. There are too many cases of believers being told their mental health struggles are due to lacking faith, sin, or even possession.
The Lord is here to offer us support and help us through times of struggle, and it is time to use his words to offer hope and inspiration in those dealing with mental health rather than stigmatizing them. It is obvious that a personal connection with the Lord can help lead to better mental health, but it requires a balance of treatment and a personal spiritual relationship that can’t be forced. Accusing someone of not having enough faith during times of mental struggle only places guilt on them for an illness that is out of their control and rarely inspires more religious conviction. Their relationship with God can only come from themselves.
Similarly, placing blame on sin as a cause for mental illness ignores one crucial fact: we are all sinners, and we are all forgiven so long as we seek enlightenment and truth from God. Focusing on the sinning only places more blame on the person struggling. We can help those struggling with past offenses reconcile their sins and ask for forgiveness, but we should be careful to not make them feel worse for their transgressions. We all sin, but sin is an opportunity to learn and grow and become a better believer. It shouldn’t be used to weigh others down when they are searching for support.
The fact is, mental health issues can not be treated with faith alone. Counselors and mental health experts are trained in helping those with illness or struggles to recover. But, a secular approach to counseling is likely not the best answer. By working with well known strategies to assist those dealing with mental health issues while also offering the healing light of the Lord, we are able to help the mind and soul simultaneously, and we are more likely to foster a personal relationship with God in those we help.