Faith and Mental Health: Bridging the Gap Between Religion and Therapy

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A recent Associated Press webinar titled “Does Faith Have a Place in Mental Health?” addressed the divide between the two seemingly taboo topics. Wednesday’s event served as a kickoff discussion for the publication of several articles on the topics of the AP, Conversation and Religion News Service.

Natasha Mikles, assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Texas State University, hosted. Panelists were Thema Bryant, president-elect of the American Psychological Association; David Morris, psychologist and author; and Rabbi Seth Winberg, executive director and senior chaplain of Brandeis Hillel.

Here are some takeaways from the discussion:

The divide between religion and mental health

Religion often focuses on things you can’t see, while psychology is a science that is often fact-driven, panelists said.

“There’s a strong empiricism, a strong focus on facts, to the discipline of psychology,” Morris said. “What is true is only the things that are observed; that runs through American culture in general.

These conflicting views, Bryant said, are a cause of the disconnect between two communities: those in the mental health field versus those in faith groups.

“There is research that shows that mental health providers, on average, approve of lower religiosity than the general public,” she said. “You have those who don’t identify as people of faith who create therapeutic models for people whose faith can be very central. We use two different languages.

Bryant said this is not a scenario where you should only have one or the other, religion or therapy. Tools from both fields should be implemented together as a personalized mix for each individual, she said.

To bring these two worlds together, Bryant said his organization plans to create a new department specifically to bridge this gap between psychology and religion. This branch will establish collaborations between the religious and psychological communities to find better results than either alone could provide.

Religion can help or harm mental health

Bryant used an example from research conducted during Hurricane Katrina. Several children were asked about their view of God during this moment of extreme emotion. There was a theme among the responses: the children said that God had either saved them or inflicted evil as punishment.

Both of these mindsets are present in the wider religious world, Bryant said, and they have implications for mental health.

When faith is seen as beneficial by the individual, he is on the positive side of religion or exhibits “positive religious adjustment”. Children who responded positively about God demonstrated this mindset.

On the other hand, there is a negative mindset we can develop from religion which Bryant called “negative religious adaptation.” Instead of seeing God as good, children who held this view saw their pain as sent by God to punish them. This belief can be destructive to mental health as it often leads to feelings of guilt.

Rabbi Winberg described this feeling of fear or guilt as a powerful emotion that can determine whether we positively or negatively face religious beliefs. This can be a determining factor in whether religion hurts or helps with depression and overall mental well-being, he said.

According to Morris, the United States needs to “round up” mindsets like these so that fewer Americans fall on the extremes of this spectrum of beliefs.

Change will take effort

In Mikles’ class at Texas State University, she often shares a phrase about the importance of individuality. She told the event that mental health professionals should keep this same lesson in mind.

“Christianity doesn’t exist, there are only Christians,” Mikles said. “There is no Islam, only Muslims. It’s about centralizing individuals.

Rabbi Winberg suggested that in the future, religious professionals like him will need to advocate for their congregations to get help outside of the religious realm. Religious leaders can recommend mental health professionals, he said.

Rabbi Winberg and other panelists expressed hope that it is possible to overcome the current divide between faith and sanity. If and when the gap is closed, it will be for the good of both worlds, they said.


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