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Does faith have a place in mental health?

Faith leaders, mental health providers share their insights and experiences during a thought-provoking webinar

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Religion can be used for healing and uplift — and to oppress, marginalize and shame people.

That and other takeaways emerged from Wednesday’s hour-long webinar titled “Does faith have a place in mental health?” The Associated Press, The Conversation and Religion News Service sponsored the webinar. Dr. Natasha Mikles, assistant professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Texas State University, moderated the panel, which included:

Dr. Natasha Mikles

Watch the webinar here.

Mikles asked panelists if religion could be “a double-edged sword confronting mental health issues.” Morris said faith can indeed “bring health and be the source of unhealth.” A professor of his used to tell students religion “is the one thing that repels and attracts people at the same time.” Religion is always in context, Morris said, and it depends on who’s talking about it, how the terms are defined, whom it’s for and whom it’s excluding.

Bryant said there’s both positive and negative religious coping. In the former, the person might say, “I believe God is loving and cares and wants to help me.” But others are taught God is “harsh and mean and tries to catch me messing up.” Bryant works with survivors of sexual trauma who tell her that while the trauma may feel overwhelming, “even if I don’t get justice, this person has to answer to God, who believes me if nobody else does.”

Bryant often hears aphorisms including “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” But the reality is “I can be both at the same time.” Some of her clients won’t even admit they’re depressed. “They think if they say it, it makes them depressed,” Bryant said.

Dr. David Morris

Morris said people who are grieving the death of someone close to them are often “given platitudes about how their loved one is in heaven” and are advised by otherwise well-meaning people to move on. “It takes time,” he said. “People acknowledge their sorrow through lament. It’s something I think religious leaders understand. But in this world of easy faith, we can overlook those emotions.”

Winberg said it can be helpful for students to read the rabbinic back-and-forth of the Talmud, which dates back to the 6th century. “I sometimes encourage students to talk with me or anyone else in that kind of open way,” Winberg said. “A person of faith can ask questions because the Talmud has so much open speculation and dialogue … That seems to be something they appreciate. They don’t expect rabbis to be open to that, but that’s where rabbinic Judaism started.”

Dr. Thema Bryant

Bryant has heard preachers take to the pulpit to talk about their own grief and even about going to therapy. “Let our humanity show up,” she advised preachers. “We want people to be authentic.” Work mental health into the liturgy, she suggested. “There is depression, anxiety, violence and trauma in biblical stories,” she noted. “Pray for people struggling with addiction.”

To the thought she sometimes hears — why would I talk to a therapist when that has no impact on my soul? — Bryant says, “Did it have impact on your soul to get educated or go to the dentist or call a plumber? We are living in the present, and it’s challenging.”

Morris said it’s important for religious leaders “to have a well-rounded approach, not just in the Bible, but in human relations and tradition.” Like Pastor Rick Warren and others have, “it’s important for leaders to talk about mental health from the pulpit,” Morris said.

“We are embodied. We can’t serve God without a healthy body and healthy mind, and we need to reduce as much stigma [to seeking mental health services] as possible,” Winberg said, recommending free eBooks offered by the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.

Rabbi Seth Winberg

Winberg said the pandemic has brought “a kind of suspended animation” to students’ social, emotional and spiritual development. “I think students have suffered from the lack of interactions. It does something to you to be physically distant from people in extreme ways. I think young people have lost that twinkle in their eye,” he said. “It’s not so obvious what the right response is, except to be present with them and to let them express those really uncertain feelings.”

“Another big piece has been around injustice,” Bryant said. Some congregations “fight for these issues, others are silent and still others promote oppressive approaches.”

“Many people have questions, and we can’t respond with Easy Bake answers. Doubt is part of faith formation,” Bryant said. “Life shows up, and I have to wrestle with ‘what does this mean given what I believe?’ We have to create space for doubt and questions and not put people down.”

“The church is losing relevance — the white evangelical tradition in particular — and then loneliness kicked in, and it’s affected a lot of us,” Morris said. “It’s up to religious leaders and communities to step in and address these issues.”

According to Bryant, the Black church historically “was not organized to be open just for two hours on Sunday morning.” Rather, it’s a community-based entity “that at its best is open throughout the week to address the diverse needs of community members,” Bryant said. However, “that model has been depleting for faith leaders,” whom she advises to “create a lifestyle of sabbath. Jesus would go minister and then he’d go and disappear. We want to embody that — not just to serve, but to rest.”

Morris placed himself in the post-evangelical movement that’s inclusive and empowering of the voices of women and people in the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. “A lot of pastors have this mindset,” but are afraid if they voice that kind of support, “they’ll lost their jobs,” Morris said. “Community is so needed, especially if you are an exhausted pastor.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate [the power of] expressing gratitude to those who have stretched above and beyond” during the pandemic, Winberg said. “Anyone can do that — express some gratitude to those who have helped them get through the past few years.”,

Faith-based communities and mental health providers are often separated, Bryant noted, and some providers “have been dismissive of religiosity and spirituality.” One therapist told her client, “You seem so smart. Don’t tell me you believe that [church] stuff,” she said. “It makes people think they need to choose.”

With Bryant poised to be the next president of the American Psychological Association, “maybe psychologists can be better trained to realize we are meaning-making human beings,” Morris said. On the flip side, “the tradition I am from is so intertwined with politics and often asks people to check their brains at the door. It is up to religious leaders as well to meet [mental health providers] halfway and do a good job explaining how faith works and what its strengths and weaknesses are.”

When that conversation does occur, “I hope they are encouraging compassion and moderation,” Winberg said, “because the controlling feeling for a lot of people is fear, and that’s going to be hard to change.”

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