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Religion and Mental Health

January 10, 2011

This week-end and today, Jan. 10, the nation has been captivated by Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona.  There are many angles rightly being explored and discussed.  But one I’ve not yet seen coming up is what role religion and religious institutions play or should play in society in relation to mental health.  Rarely does this topic ever come up.

The subject in itself could be taken in many directions.  With my time limitations I will raise just a couple: 1) Are we, as either religious or spiritual people, willing to take a close look, maybe step back briefly to look from an “outsider’s” or newcomer’s perspective, and examine how our belief systems and church practices either contribute to or detract from mental health?

2)  What are some of the opportunities our communities of faith, of whatever theology, are missing in addressing the major problem of the mentally ill in our society? Many of these are people on the street, homeless, having been turned out from care institutions in recent years.  How many of the churches, synagogues or spiritual groups we attend are doing anything at all to help people like this? To the extent we help such people, as well as those still somewhat integrated in places like colleges, workplaces, etc., we are protecting innocent people from the violence they may be near committing. 

I know reaching out can carry risk, as I experienced while a counselor, often being called on to work “above my pay grade” in trying to help, and not always sure if I was doing the right things.  But are not those mentally/emotionally struggling or truly mentally ill among “the least of these” who Jesus and other religious leaders called on us to serve?

I’ll return briefly to the first point…. In the case of Christian beliefs, which I know the best, does the common presumption of a simple “plan of salvation” pieced together from widely diverse authors and audiences of the Bible, and its preaching, contribute to emotional stability more than it creates instability? (Note this is different and distinct from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or major depression.)  If “secure” believers look a ways beyond themselves and a friend group of similar believers, they may find that people of other psychological tendencies or family environments are as much troubled or even traumatized by elements of the “plan of salvation,” especially when it come to “assurance of salvation,” as they are thankfully “saved” from their sins or from a supposed eternal punishment.   

What are your thoughts and observations? Can you share a good example of what a church or religious/spiritual group is doing to address mental illness or help the mentally ill?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2011 8:58 am

    I think some research suggests that church members tend to be slightly better in mental health than non members. This may be because chronically mentally ill people arent’ able to sustain participation in an ongoing community. It alternately (or concurrently) may be because of social support and structure that churches provide, along with a sense of purpose.

    That said, many people on exChristian websites describe self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and even more severe mental health issues brought on by specific theologies like original sin, blood atonement, eternal torture, the rapture, etc.

    • Howard Pepper permalink
      January 16, 2011 8:10 am


      Thanks for these important thoughts! Like you, I think the kind of community and structure provided by most churches, regardless of creed or specific theology, tends to enhance mental and emotional health. At the same time, specifics of theology often undercut some of this, particularly among certain members. My thought is, “We can do better.” I do believe American (and international) religion is s-l-o-w-l-y moving that way and our insights are maturing.

      And I encourage everyone to keep learning and growing, partly by actively seeking out and interacting with other thoughtful, compassionate people of other strands of faith, or even “unbelievers.” There are many pleasant surprises when one does this.


  1. Christian Faith and Mental Health Care | Natural Spirituality - Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth

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