Religious Faith and Mental Health

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 analysing 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 make you crazy?  Not necessarily.  The study looked only at the correlation between beliefs and mental health and not at causality, so the study’s takeaway message is subject to interpretation.” 

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Ms Kerry McCullough

Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator