This post is only loosely associated with mental health, but it’s a topic I wanted to explore anyway. I hope that this isn’t offensive to anyone, and my intent is not to criticize anyone’s belief system.
I was raised in an atheist family, and never set foot in a church as a child. As I entered my 20’s and began travelling, I started to experience religious practice as a detached observer. I would go into sites of worship, and observe religious services (always in non-English languages though). I’ve been an array of churches, mosques, and temples of various sorts. I’ve been to Jerusalem and seen the three major Abrahamic religions co-exist in an uneasy juxtaposition. I’ve read the Quran and parts of the Old and New Testament. And it all fascinates me.
I tend to be a left-brained, logical, scientific kind of person, and from that perspective, there just seem to be so many holes in the whole idea of religion. There are all of these various monotheistic, polytheistic, animist, and other spiritual points of view held by people throughout the world, but for the most part it would seem they can’t all be true/right at the same time, so who’s right and who’s wrong? If there is one God, wouldn’t he/she/it have everyone dancing to the same tune? I understand that faith is supposed to be about belief, not logic, but I can’t help but see holes.
It also puzzles me when religions are highly prescriptive and proscriptive. I’ll be completely facetious here for a second, but why would a spiritual belief system need to tell me that I should hop twice on the right foot, twirl around, and then do a two-footed hop? If there is a higher power, does he/she not have more important things to do than ask me to do that little dance regularly? And I’ll reiterate that this particular example is entirely ridiculous, but the point remains that I have a hard time accepting highly literal interpretations of holy works, particularly when they dictate individual behaviour aside from behaviours that are reflective of fundamental moral principles.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk a bit about religion and mental health. It seems very clear that religion can be a good thing. Religious beliefs that don’t condone suicide are recognized as a protective factor against suicide. Turning to a higher power seems like a good way to find hope and establish a framework of meaning. I’ve certainly read bloggers who have gained a great deal of strength from their faith. But from what I’ve read, sometimes members of faith-based organizations will offer only a very narrow form of support to those with mental illness, like the argument that meds aren’t necessary and more prayer is the only way. I would imagine there’s a great deal of variability not only among faith traditions but among individual community-level groups, and so the problem is likely not religion per se but what some particular groups choose to do with it.
To further complicate matters, religion is sometimes incorporated into people’s mental illness. I’ve had various clients who thought they had a direct hotline to God. My last boyfriend, who had schizophrenia, was not normally religious, but in the context of his illness he believed that he was able to interpret the bible in a special way. Sometimes he would spend hours writing nonsense messages he thought he was receiving from the bible. What does become interesting, though, is trying to tease apart genuine religious beliefs from religious-themed delusions or hallucinations. In some cases hearing the voice of God may be considered religiously or culturally appropriate, and the DSM cautions that this sort of thing needs to be taken into account in determining whether someone is having experiences consistent with a psychotic disorder.
It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be signing up for any religion anytime soon, but I will probably maintain my sort of detached fascination with all of it. What I do hope, though, is that all faith traditions will take advantage of the power they have to promote the healing journey of people living with mental illness. Rather than blaming mental illness on things like lack of faith or prayer, religious organizations should step up to the plate and make sure they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.