A Matter of Faith: Religion and Mental Health

Date01 February 2000
Published date01 February 2000
AuthorLynne Friedli
Subject MatterHealth & social care
International Journal of Mental Health Promotion VOLUME 2 ISSUE 2 • MAY2000 ©Pavilion Publishing (Brighton) Limited. 7
‘ I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
Idid not see the speechless clouds,
Isaw only the little white dish of my
faith breaking in the crater.
Ikept saying: I’ve got to have
something to hold on to’
Anne Sexton,The Awful Rowing Toward God
The Health Education Authority, in partnership with the National
Schizophrenia Fellowship, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
and the Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill, recently published a
resource for Jewish and Christian spiritual leaders: Promoting Mental
Health: The role of faith
communities (Health Educa tion Authority, 1999).The publication aims
to strengthen understanding of the link between spirituality and men-
tal health and to increase awareness of the role of faith communities
in challenging the stigma and discrimination experienced by people
with mental health problems. The issues raised by this project, during
the extensive consultation and in the media coverage following the
launch, highlighted a complex debate and significant parallels in the
concerns of faith communities and the user/
survivor movement. These centre on the extent to which health pro-
fessionals are equipped to engage with alternative conceptual frame-
works for
understanding, treating and managing mental health problems –
whether such alternatives derive from secular,or spiritual, beliefs
regarding mental health.
The banner headlines of an English Sunday broadsheet, covering
the launch of the Promoting Mental Health project, aptly demonstrated
the potency of linking two topics – religion and mental illness – and
played to popular stereotypes by illustrating the piece with a photo-
graph from the film The Exorcist:
‘Government-backed report says: exorcise your way to mental
(Sunday Telegraph, 3rd October 1999).
The headline focus on exorcism (which was referred to once in a
40-page publication) served to locate any debate about religion and
mental health within a categorymarked extreme, and indeed mad,
and reinforced this by an implicit appeal to the absurdity of the
Government’s backing such a project.
Significantly, the Health Education Authority’s own definition of
mental health, which emphasises
emotional and spiritual resilience, has not been uncontroversial, and
has raised concerns about the inclusion of a non-secular dimension:
‘mental health is the emotional and spiritual resilience which
enables us to enjoylife and to survive pain, suffering and dis-
appointment. It is a positive sense of well-being and an under-
lying belief in our own and others’ dignity and worth.’ (Health
Education Authority, 1997)
AMatter of Faith: Religion
Mental Health
Lynne Friedli
Chief Executive, mentality1
Religion and mental health are not easy issues
to address within the same framework. The
unstable boundarybetween symptoms of psy-
chosis and some forms of religious inspiration is
only one element in a complex debate about
the relationship between spirituality and mental
health. Growing evidence of the significance of
religious belief to people with mental health
problems raises important questions about the
role of spirituality in mental health promotion,
the relationship between mental health service
providers and spiritual leaders and the attitudes
of faith communities to mental health issues.
1Mentality is a new NGO dedicated to mental health promotion. Further information on mentality and its work on mental health
promotion and faith is available from mentality, 134 Borough High Street,London SE1, www.mentality.org.uk

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