I recently completed my psychiatry placement at medical school. The things we saw and heard were unlike anything medical school or even life, prepared us for. From depression and suicide to schizophrenia and elaborate delusions that control a person’s entire life; by the end I was happy if a patient just came in complaining of hearing voices. I always expected to enjoy this placement, what I didn’t expect was the strange effect it began to have on me. I found myself praying, a lot; constantly thanking God for my sanity and pleading to Him to protect it, like being mentally ill was contagious, which is ridiculous I know. It was a relief for me to have a God to turn to, to have my faith to alleviate my anxiety and protect me. So I began to wonder about the impact religion and faith has on mental health, and if I felt like my faith was helping me protect my sanity, maybe it could help patients regain theirs. I had no idea where to begin with this, but it turns out a simple Google search of “religion and mental health” revealed a world of research into this field. The 800 words I have here cannot do this vast area justice, so what I will do is give you a summary of the salient points and hopefully encourage you to read more.
It became apparent that the relationship between mental health and religion has been debated for centuries. History shows that the first hospitals to be opened for the mentally ill in the 14th century were church funded and priest managed, and religious organisations were the first to offer care to these patients. In the 20th century Freud had an enormous impact on the field of mental health. He postulated that religion in fact caused mental health problems based on its neurotic influence, and he wasn’t alone. Wendell Watters, another well known psychiatrist, stated that religious beliefs were responsible for the development of low self-esteem, depression, and even schizophrenia. This stemmed from the notion that people struggled with the battle of moral perfection and a life free from sin to seek the approval of God. In fact, during much of the 20th century, mental health professionals tended to either deny the religious aspects of human life or consider religiousness as old-fashioned or pathological.
Over the past two decades, a wealth of studies has uncovered a strong positive association between religiousness and mental health. The crux of the argument is that being religious or having faith can have a positive effect on mental and physical health through increasing optimism and providing a support system in the form of prayer, meditation and community inclusion as coping mechanisms. In a study by Koenig (2004) 838 patients admitted to the general medical wards were surveyed. Various religious and spiritual beliefs were recorded. The results revealed that religiousness and spirituality consistently predicted greater social support, fewer depressive symptoms, better cognitive function, and greater cooperativeness in patients. Patients who categorized themselves as neither spiritual nor religious had severer health problems and were more likely to develop other medical conditions on top of existing ones.
The message here is that religiousness can strengthen various resources, including spiritual, cognitive, psychological and social. Not only do these resources have unique positive effects on mental health, they also interact with and reinforce each other. They could be beneficial enough to change one’s worldview and cognition from an apathetic one to a world with hope, warmth and meaningfulness. To see the world in this way may be helpful in keeping them mentally healthy during stressful and critical life events.
It’s not only academics that have suggested this association. For centuries, philosophers, scholars and poets have also addressed this relationship. One example is Imam Al Ghazali speaking on the limits of wisdom in his Alchemy of Happiness where he says, “For instance, if a man ceases to take any concern in worldly matters, conceives a distaste for common pleasures, and appears sunk in depression, the doctor will say, “This is a case of melancholy, and requires such and such prescription… Thus far their wisdom reaches…” It does not occur to them that what has really happened is this: that the Almighty has a concern for the welfare of that man, and has therefore commanded His servants, the planets or the elements, to produce such a condition in him that he may turn away from the world to his Maker.” Again, it is suggested here that in times of physical, emotional or mental distress there is the need to turn to spirituality and faith as a means of comfort and support.
So from these examples, and the hundreds of other studies conducted in this field, it is clear that there is a relationship between religiousness and mental health. The question is, so what? What do we do with this association, how do we use it? Deep in the virtual layers of Google I uncovered campaigns by scientists to incorporate religiosity into the treatment of the mentally ill. To ask all patients what their religious background is, what their faith and spirituality levels are and to then use that information in conjunction with their medical treatment. The problem is encouraging the medical profession to welcome this, to move away from the notion that religion and faith has no place in science and medicine.
At the moment I couldn’t tell you what this all means. I have more questions now than I did before I started swimming in this deep ocean, mainly what about the millions of mentally well healthy people out there with no faith? What’s their secret to sanity? And can we use religion to treat the mentally ill? Or is faith just one protective factor against mental illness? I do know this however; my increased religiosity during my psychiatry placement was not ridiculous and unwarranted. Since the 20th century we’ve come along away to accepting the impact faith can have on all aspects of human life. The mere fact that there is a vast world of research into this field proves there is interest, there are people taking notice of this association and working to find out more. While the way forward in all scientific research is more research, I’m happy for now just to watch this field unfold, to see where this all goes and eagerly await the outcome.
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