A Matter of Faith: Religion and Mental Health

Publication Date01 Feb 2000
AuthorJohn Raeburn
SubjectHealth & social care
14 International Journal of Mental Health Promotion VOLUME 2 ISSUE 2 • MAY 2000 © Pavilion Publishing (Brighton) Limited.
his article by Lynne Friedli is a very timely one, putting on
the mental health promotion (MHP) agenda something of consider-
able importance – matters that need categorically to come out of
the closet into the full light of day.The aspects tha t Dr Friedli choos-
es to emphasise here are those of religion and faith co mmunities.
Equally, the whole broader area of spirituality, and its place in peo-
ple’s lives, needs to be addressed as a MHP domain of central
importance – perhaps the most important MHP area there is! And
the first step is to destigmatise these areas, and to put them in their
rightful place – as perhaps the most honourable, meaningful and
profound concerns of humankind, indeed, the point of human exis-
tence, as pointed out a few decades ago by Aldous Huxley.
Dr Friedli’s article seems to have been written in the first place as
a response to the recent British Health Education authority document
Promoting Mental Health: The Role of Faith Communities, the audi-
ence for which is ‘Jewish and Christian spiritual leaders’. But it goes
beyond this document to raise some more general issues relating to
religion, mental health and mental illness.
It seems that this article is largely discussing the issue of religion,
as it relates to mental health, in terms of the two words in the term
‘faith community’
– that is faith (a psychological matter) and community (as in social
support and participation in a common enterprise). The emphasis
seems to be mainly on mental health from a consumer perspective,
rather than that of the population at large. What it does not address so
much is the concept of spirituality, and the actual content of religious
thought, practice and belief. Also, the role of spirituality and religion
from a general MHP perspective relating to the whole population gets
relatively little attention, and is largely limited to the role of ‘faith com-
munities’. The main points seem to be:
The media, and many mental health professionals, give a ‘bad
press’ to, ridicule or resist the concept of religion as it relates to
mental health.
However,there is growing recognition in some quarters of the role
of faith communities in having a positive impact on mental health.
Our history in the mental health professions of rational science is
one reason that religion does not get proper a ttention, even
though science is now also convincingly demonstrating a num-
ber of
benefits of, say,‘church attendance’. However, most research
studies emphasise the secular aspects of belonging to a faith
Tcommunity (social support,
having a coherent belief system, etc) rather than the ‘spiritual’,
subjective or ‘deep meaning’ aspects.
Faith communities can be both very helpful and mental health-
promoting, and, equally, quite
damaging, as when, say,they negatively label those with mental
problems, or invoke concepts such as demon possession.
It sometimes seems easier for mainstream Europeans (in a coun-
try such as Britain) to accept spirituality and religion as important
for mental health in minority groups, but not for themselves.
The possibility of interpreting mental problems, such as schizo-
phrenia, as potentially positive, spiritual, life-enhancing experi-
ences, seems
very promising.
In short, what we have here, as so well indicated by the author, is
‘ambivalence’ about this whole area.
I don’t think one is left in much doubt that active participation in a
‘faith community’ is probably, on balance, a ‘good thing’ for mental
health among those who do participate, and that the ‘bad’ effects
are in the minority. But since, in modern Western secular states,
church, synagogue, mosque and similar attendance is at an a ll-time
low, the overall impact may still be rather low if one focuses only on
‘faith communities’. My own country, New Zealand, is a prime
example, with an active church attendance
of about 12% of the population. At the same time, research in New
Zealand shows that about 80% of people have a strong personal
belief in ‘something’ beyond themselves (not necessarily labelled).
Recent research done by a group of graduate students of mine with
16-year-olds at high school showed that almost all of them had
strong ‘spiritual’ beliefs or feelings, something which they seldom
discussed with others, which was not manifested in any obvious
way, but which was of central and critical significance to them. To
me, the MHP issue here is that ‘personal spirituality’, which exists
outside conve ntional faith communities, is not getting the recognition
it deserves. ‘Science’, in the form of qualitative and survey research,
needs to be looking at this aspect, I believe!
Which brings me to the main point of this commentary: that it is
time for those interested in MHP to look seriously at the concept of
spirituality, not just within, but also outside the established religions
and faith communities. That is not at all to belittle their role; particu-
A Matter of Faith: Religion
Mental Health
John Raeburn
Associate Professor,
Department of Community Health, University of
New Zealand

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