A Matter of Faith: Religion and Mental Health

Published date01 February 2000
Date01 February 2000
AuthorS. Sykes
Subject MatterHealth & social care
International Journal of Mental Health Promotion VOLUME 2 ISSUE 2 • MAY 2000 © Pavilion Publishing (Brighton) Limited. 17
he central thesis of this article is that there can and should
be a fruitful relationship between professionals in the field of mental
health on the one hand and faith communities on the other.There
are, however, complex issues to be tackled on both sides, which
require careful thought and some reorientation of attitudes, if misun-
derstandings and prejudices are to be removed. There is evidence
both that
‘some mental health services are insensitive to
the religious or spiritual needs of service users
or interpret religious experience as a symptom
of illness’ (Friedli, 1999)
and also, as the author notes, attitudes towards people with mental
illness have been ambivalent or contradictory in the faith communi-
The author raises many issues arising from recently improved
relationships between mental health
professionals and the faith communities. In this
commentary I propose to focus on the ‘spiritual needs’ of people who
have a mental health difficulty.How and to what extent are they
The author observes, rightly, that the role of religious beliefs has
often been overlooked in relation to mental health problems.
Religiously active people who suffer from a mental health problem are
sometimes given to understand that their religion is the cause of
their difficulties. The eighteenth century poet and hymn writer,William
Cowper,who experienced several acute episodes of depression, is
spoken of in a recent
biography as suffering from ‘religious mania’ (Ackroyd, 1995).
It is, however,important to recognise tha t a serious mental health
problem is likely to have a major impact on the most fundamental
assumptions upon which a religiously active person lives his or her
life. This is confirmed by a number of autobiographical writings
(Cowper, 1979).And it also follows from the way in whic h religion is
defined. Though such definitions
are notoriously diverse, the following is an
authoritative example:
‘Religion is… (1) a system of symbols which acts (2) to establish
powerful, pervasive and long-
lasting moods and motivations in men by (3)
Tformulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4)
clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5)
the moods and
motivations seem uniquely realistic’ (Geertz, 1966).
Several phrases in this definition are important in relation to mental
health. A religious person is the subject of ‘powerful, pervasive and
long-lasting moods and motivations’. Under conditions of mental ill-
ness these may be disrupted or radically changed. ‘A general order
of existence’ has been believed in which may be seriously chal-
lenged; the fundamental benevolence of God,for example, may be
thrown into question. The ‘uniquely realistic’ moods and
motivations of religion, which hitherto may have coloured the life
experience of the religious believer, may, under conditions of mental
illness, suddenly be distorted, or thrown into confusion.
The seriously disorientating character of major mental health diffi-
culties for religious believers requires a response from the mental
health services. Religion is not a separate compartment of a believer’s
life, but the way in which the whole of life is interpreted. The ‘holistic
approach to health’ reflected in the British Government’s public health
strategy is a welcome acknowledgement that for many people health
cannot be separated from religious belief and practice.
But what are the implications of this observation for many people
who in the Western world have ceased to participate in any religious
practices? It is noticeable that the word ‘spirituality’ has come
increasingly to be defined in such a way as to refer to a ‘non-religious
existential quest for meaning’ (Speck, 1998). People of no overt reli-
gious belief may thus be defined as having some kind of implicit ‘spir-
itual needs’ or ‘spirituality’. Is this in fact the case?
Several observations need to be made. In the first place, using
the definition of religion above, it is recognisable that Christianity con-
tinues to provide a system of symbols for many whose practice of
Christian faith is a distant memory. Relatively few people subscribe to
atheism or abandon religion altogether (Davie, 1994). The evi dence
for the existence of
‘common religion’ is persuasive, and includes the
tendency to approach the Christian churches for rites of passage, as a
kind of fall-back position acquired by people for whom any other
practice has not been a reality (Davie & Cobb, 1998). This is an area
requiring interpretative sensitivity from professionals.
Second, it may be questioned whether the word ‘spirituality’ is
properly defined as ‘an existential quest for meaning’. As Markham
A Matter of Faith: Religion
Mental Health
S. W. Sykes
Professor of Theology,
University of Durham,
and Principal of
St John’s College, Durham

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