What lies at the intersection of religion and mental health? This is a question that I have asked myself many times, as a mental health professional and an active member of my church.
My first bout with depression was precipitated in large part by the loss of my faith in my late teens.Coming to a deeper understanding of my faith as a young adult certainly didn’t save me from the anxieties, losses, and stressors of life, but it did provide me with a foundation for resiliency and strength when encountered with negative events and feelings. Recent interest in the role of spirituality in mental health has produced a number of interesting studies that, overall, suggest that spirituality, religion, and faith can help maintain our mental health, and help those with mental health conditions to manage those conditions successfully.
As we look at our health holistically – mind, body, and soul – it just makes sense to consider our spiritual health as it relates to our whole health. So, how does spirituality help with health? Here are a few examples, according to research:
1.) Spiritual practice triggers the relaxation response. For example, meditating for 10 to 20 minutes twice a day causes decreased heart rate, slowed breathing and calmer brain waves. The same is true of other, related spiritual practices, such as prayer and contemplation.
2.) Religion offers a community. There are some studies which suggest that spirituality on its own does not correlate with increased mental health. However, when practiced in community with others, the benefits are great. Organized religion provides us with a connection, not only to our greater purpose but to one another. Additionally, religious congregations usually offer social activities and resources for support.
3.) Spirituality offers a way to understand our experiences in the world. While medical science can offer wonderful information, for example, on why mental illness might occur or how to manage it with medication, it can’t answer the more foundational questions of suffering and hope. For many people, religion offers an understanding of these questions that can bring peace and healing.
4.) Religion offers an opportunity for service. There are many studies that document the psychological benefits of helping others. Often religious congregations offer easy ways to get involved in giving back to the community.
So how can we take advantage of these benefits? Those who grew up with a religious faith and are comfortable with it may already be reaping the health benefits of their spiritual practice.
For those who do not have this experience, learning more about local religious congregations can’t hurt and may lead to finding a faith home that supports your health. Remember that you are not obligated to begin practicing a religion just because you visit or ask questions about it. It is important that you feel welcomed, and that you feel accepted and supported in your recovery if you are living with a behavioral health disorder. And if you have had a bad experience with organized religion: take heart! Beginning a routine of spiritual practice is easy to do on your own, or in a new and different setting. There are many opportunities for fellowship to choose from, each with its own particular strengths and personality. If you’re interested, it’s never too late to find your faith home.
Written by Emily Coggin Vera, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association In Delaware