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News > Feature Stories > Faith and Mental Health - Spirituality 8 October

Faith and Mental Health - Spirituality 8 October

At the start of Mental Health Month, Ms Kerry McCullough explores how our mental, emotional and spiritual health intertwine in our understanding of religious faith.

This month is Mental Health Month. As I think about mental health issues and what mental wellness might be, I find myself pondering the link between mental health and religious faith. This raises many questions. Is good mental health necessary for spiritual health, or vice versa?  How does religious faith affect mental health - in fact, does it? Is good mental health dependent on our particular image and understanding of the deity? Do certain religious beliefs lead to mental health issues? And conversely, does poor mental health necessarily lead to strange or delusional religious beliefs?  And there are many more questions that arise. It is a complex issue. Studies show that when dealing with major life stresses such as illness, divorce, bereavement and natural disasters, religion and spirituality are generally helpful in helping people cope. Some of these aspects of religious faith which help people face what life throws up at them are the support found through turning to God or a higher power, rituals which enable people to face and deal with life transitions, support from a religious community, and reframing the situation in the context of a larger reality, a system of meaning. However, conversely, it has also been found that certain religious beliefs can also cause emotional stress.

An article in The Huffington Post on a recent study raises some of these issues and shows the complexity of the link: “Many people find comfort in religious faith, but a provocative new study links certain beliefs with emotional problems. The study, published April 10 last year in the Journal of Religion and Health, showed that people who believe in an angry, vengeful god are more likely to suffer from social anxiety, paranoia, obsessional thinking, and compulsions. Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing responses of 1,426 Americans to a 2010 poll on religion. Poll respondents who indicated belief in a deity were placed in three categories - those who believed in a punitive god, those who believed in a benevolent god, and those who believed in a deistic (uninvolved) god. Then the researchers looked at the prevalence of emotional problems in each group. What exactly did the researchers find? Symptoms of mental illness were more common among those in the punitive god group than in the deistic god or benevolent god groups. Does that mean that believing in an angry god can cause mental illness? Not necessarily. The study looked only at the correlation between beliefs and mental health and not at causality, so the study’s take–away message is subject to interpretation”. However, the study’s authors are convinced that the type of god one believes in can indeed affect one’s emotional state. They point out this happens not so much at the conscious or thought level, but as Dr Neva Silton, professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College says, “Quite simply, the notion is that belief in a benevolent God will reduce the sense that the world is threatening at the neural level, because God will protect you from harm. The angry God not only fails to provide protection, he/she may actually pose a threat of harm”. Not everyone, however, agrees with this:  “We don’t know whether it was the poorer mental health (anxiety, paranoia) that caused subjects to perceive God as punitive, or whether it was the view of God as punitive that caused the poor mental health”, said Dr Harold Koenig, a Duke University professor of psychiatry.  “My suspicion is that people with emotional problems see their entire world in a negative light and often feel a need to blame someone – and God is often the target”.

It is certainly a multi-faceted issue and there are many variables in any study. But putting aside the difficulties of accurate and conclusive studies, and putting aside instances of diagnosed and significant mental health issues, religious faith centred on a benevolent deity does provide a worldview, a way of approaching life, which is certainly conducive to good mental and emotional health. Religious faith is a particular orientation to life which sees all of life, in its multitude of expressions, as part of a greater context. The word religion comes from the Latin re-ligare, ‘to bind back’. A religious worldview, orientation or perspective, and religious practice, bind us to this ‘something greater’. It lifts us up beyond the confines of our own minds, hearts and situations. It answers those fundamental questions that are part of what makes us human: questions of origin - where do I come from, how did the universe come to be? Questions of destiny - what is my end and the end of this world in which I find myself? And everything in between - those questions of meaning and purpose. 

In the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these questions are answered with reference to a God of Mystery, at once beyond us and yet deeply intimate and known to us. The Christian understanding of God is that God is at once transcendent, beyond the physical world and all created reality, and immanent, present within creation. Our Christian understanding of the nature of God is trinitarian – God as Father, Source and Creator of all life; God as Jesus, among us, enfleshed or incarnate, the Way, the Truth; and God as the Holy Spirit, the power of love and life and good acting in the world, acting in and through us, transforming the world. It is all too easy, especially when we are tired, stressed, worried, struggling with life’s difficult moments, struggling with our poor sense of self, with guilt, self-blame, and so on, to forget this glorious context in which we exist.  When we do forget it we seem to turn inwards, to shrink our world. We tend to let single events, a word spoken here or there, a single interaction or disappointment, become all-consuming and, in our own minds, definitive of who we are and of our experiences. 

You may be familiar with the biblical character Job and his story which is found in the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. Job was a man who had it all – property, wealth, family, good health, a good reputation.  He was prosperous and content in all ways. However, things changed and Job lost everything. He was in a sorry state and he sank into despair. He became inward focused and his world was turned upside down. And then:

The Lord said to Job:

“Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning, and shown the dawn its place? Have you entered into the sources of the sea or walked about in the depths of the abyss? Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?

Tell me if you know all, which is the way to the dwelling place of light, and where is the abode of darkness, that you may take them to their boundaries and set them on their homeward paths?”

And Job answered the Lord and said:  “What can I answer you?”

In the face of Mystery, Job was silent. He was reminded that he was part of a bigger picture. His life with its trials and sufferings, although they were all-consuming at that moment, was framed by Mystery. Often it happens to us, for various reasons, especially in times of tension or struggle, loss or disappointment, that we are incapable of seeing outside the horizons of the moment. And of course we have all been immersed in that the past year and a half. That was Job’s story, but he was drawn out of that and reminded that he was part of a creative process that stretches way beyond him and underpins our entire universe, and that reminder got everything into perspective again for Job. What is in our hearts and on our minds is not the measure of all there is. What we comprehend is not the sum of all that exists. 

Following on from the sixteenth century Renaissance, with the dawn of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, humankind began to look upon human reason, the intellect, as capable of arriving at all truth. And I think there is much to be said about that position: from a religious perspective we believe that our reason is a God-given faculty and that it indeed may lead us to truth. In religious faith reason is not to be abandoned but embraced as a pathway to truth and to God. But the problem is that we can get stuck in lesser truths, or partial truths, and fall into the trap of seeing our personal perspectives and rationalizations as ultimate. If we’re not careful, we can become fixated on a detail that becomes all-defining. We would all be familiar with those mental conversations we have in which we are obsessively focused on a word someone has spoken to us, a single action that someone has done. But our lives are made up of many ‘moments’ and there is wisdom in recognizing this flow. What we need to come to is the realization that all things are part of the greater ‘warp and woof’ of life. There is more to any one of us than any single comment we make; there is more to any relationship than any one interaction. No one word is all defining of our relationship with someone, no one act is definitive of who we are.  When we become fixated on the one thing we may become obsessive, narrow, bitter, resentful, anxious, stressed… and on it goes.     

No, I am not the centre of the universe. I am part of its flow and am gifted with the consciousness of that. There is a dawn breaking and I am part of it. There is a sunrise, a sunset, the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, and I am part of that. There is nothing so calming and uplifting as stepping outside in the evening and gazing into the starry firmament. The spirit is both calmed and it soars.  We remember who we are and our place in the universe.  And this is the great claim and beauty of religious faith. Just as the infinity of space brings perspective and draws us out of exaggerated self-preoccupation, so does faith in the loving Mystery and Presence we call God.  But this God of Mystery, far from being a distant God, knows us intimately too. As the Psalmist cried out, “O Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mortals that you think of them?” (Psalm 144).  And from the same Book of Psalms comes the response:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me,

You know when I sit and when I stand;

You understand my thoughts from afar.

My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,

With all my ways you are familiar.

Truly you have formed my inmost being;

You knit me in my mother’s womb.

I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;

Wonderful are your works.

My soul also you know full well;

Nor was my frame unknown to you

When I was made in secret,

When I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.

(Psalm 139)

This recognition of the context in which we live, both the awesome Mystery, the otherness of God and the intimacy of God, is the heart of a truly religious life. Religious life is not just about following rules and adhering to codes of behavior, although those certainly have their place and are themselves part of that frame of reference that is our religious context. At its worst, adherence to rules for their own sake can plummet into scrupulosity and a tense and fearful way of making choices and looking at life and our destiny. But when the rules and principles are seen as expressive of that Mystery and are able to take us more deeply into it, then our choices to follow them become the means to good mental and emotional health. They become  a path that lights the way for us. 

Religious practice is the same. It takes us into the Mystery of God, reminds us who we are, places us in the proper posture before God.  Sadly, however, religious practice, especially in situations where religious institutions and dogma hold firm sway over people’s lives, is sometimes adhered to out of fear. There is the fear of falling short and not meeting the requirements.  This comes from a too narrow vision, one which cripples rather than liberates. But looking upon regular religious practice, whether that be participation in the Eucharist or some other service, or regular prayer, as the means of entering ever more fully into that context of Mystery, is something which will provide that frame of reference for us and keep it before us as our days unfold.      

Religious faith at its best sets before us a vision, not an ideal of perfection that we are expected to meet, but a vision of who we ultimately are and what our world ultimately is. In our Christian Tradition, the vision of the world it gives us is that it is a graced and blessed universe in which we find ourselves. It is good and beautiful and awe-inspiring.  We too are graced and blessed.  We are made in the image of God.  We have ‘Godness’ in us. To trust this day by day as life unfolds, is no mean feat. There is much that mitigates against this trust so it is a choice we need to make – daily. We also need to be mindful of not distorting this and imposing our own limited vision of what God might be.  Looking upon the world and ourselves in this way will certainly not guarantee that we will never experience fear, anxiety or any form of emotional or mental ill health, but it will give us the context in which to face those things.  

Religious faith is not a panacea, or as some say, a ‘crutch for the weak’. There are ethical teachings which require strength and commitment, which often go counter cultural and which both require and build strength of character. It is challenging to look at ourselves in the light of Light and Love, and to see ourselves as wanting. But a healthy religious faith with a belief in a God who is love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and whose ‘adventure’ in us is all about drawing us more fully to Godself, will bring joy. This joy is in trusting that God coming to ever fuller expression  in me, is my destiny and my deepest identity.  Failure is part of this journey – it is not an end in itself.  Misfortune and suffering, likewise, are not ends in themselves, they are a part of the greater context and flow of all that makes up my life.  Moreover, religious teachings will offer us a way of understanding these difficulties and this suffering. 

The philosopher Nietzsche said that people can live with any ‘how’ as long as they have a ‘why’. In other words, we need the bigger picture. Victor Frankl, who was a psychiatrist who was taken to Auschwitz, was fascinated by the fact that some people survived the horrors of the camp while others simply wasted away and died. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he explored this and he noted that those men and women who held on to the hope or the belief that their husband or wife was alive somewhere, were mentally and emotionally stronger than those who had no hope, and they survived the same deprivations. Based on Nietzsche’s philosophy, he developed what is called logotherapy – treating patients by enabling them to acknowledge and find this greater context of meaning and hope in their life, the bigger picture in their own particular situation. Religious faith offers us this context. God is not a giant aspirin to be ‘taken’ to dull the pain, but faith in a God who is all embracing Love, Peace and Strength, will help us face it. 

So as we reflect on mental wellness this month, Saint Paul has something wise and encouraging to say to us:

There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. 

Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. 

Then the God of peace will be with you.

(Philippians 4: 6-9)


Ms Kerry McCullough

Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator

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