Commentary

Collaborating with religious communities to promote mental health


 

Spirituality and religion remain central to the worldview of millions of Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, almost 75% of Americans identify as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu.1 As is the case with many Americans,2 the lens of spirituality3 and religion shaped my own worldview since childhood.

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Growing up in a Christian household, many of my family’s discussions centered on bolstering our spiritual health. I grew to internalize the notion that spiritual health relates to a sense of self, a sense of purpose, and a connection to God, nature, and others. Religious texts such as the Bible, Quran, and Torah share principles aimed at developing believers’ spiritual health. However, the intricacies of mental health remain entirely foreign within many faith communities. In these communities, unfamiliarity with mental health topics seemingly leads to the conflation of spiritual health and mental health.4

Within faith communities, I often hear the phrase, “You can’t worry and pray at the same time.” This commonly used expression encourages people of faith to lean on their spiritual health in times of uncertainty. The perceived dichotomy between worry and prayer represents the theology of sole reliance on spiritual coping skills, such as prayer, when feelings of anxiety and other psychological stressors arise. Because of “pray it away” doctrines and ongoing stigma related to mental health, many of our spiritually minded patients are more likely to seek counsel from religious leaders than they are from mental health clinicians in times of psychological distress.5,6

About 54% of U.S. adults identify as religious, and 75% think of themselves as spiritual.7 This intrapersonal conflict between religious/spiritual health and mental health raises an important question: How can psychiatrists more actively collaborate with religious communities to ease the perceived tensions between spiritual health and mental health for our patients?

Engaging with the community

In a recent virtual talk titled, “Dealing with Depression: Faith, Meds, and Therapy,” I openly discussed varying aspects of mental health and mental illness with approximately 70 women at my church in Philadelphia. Before this presentation, there had never been a leadership-sponsored conversation within the church to discuss spiritual health and mental health as separate but highly interconnected entities.

Throughout the nearly 2-hour session, I used biblical and biological principles to explain the differences between spiritual health and mental health, strategies to recognize signs and symptoms of depression, and treatment options for depression. After the formal presentation, a 45-minute question-and-answer session followed in which some members shared their own experiences with mental illness.

Two major themes emerged as central points of discussion during our time of open dialogue. First, several women shared the spiritual and clinical avenues they used to access support in times of psychological distress. There was a general tone of agreement among attendees that spiritual health and mental health are, in fact, different. Second, the presentation opened the door for attendees, previously unfamiliar with mental health services, to ask questions about connecting with the appropriate resources to receive mental health treatment. The subject of seeking psychiatric care for mental health challenges was, at least in part, demystified and brought to the forefront of the attendees’ minds.

Studies show that many faith-based communities are more likely to seek counsel for psychological distress from religious leaders than from mental health professionals. In this vein, my recent community engagement highlighted to me ways that we can readily reach spiritually and religiously minded patients who otherwise would not receive the psychiatric care that they need. Psychiatrists can play an integral role in bridging the gap in psychiatric care for faith-based persons through outreach to and collaboration with religious communities.

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