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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Does faith have a place in mental health?


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

October 8, 2022

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

Photo by Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash

That and other takeaways emerged from a recent webinar titled “Does faith have a place in mental health?” The Associated PressThe 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. Thema Bryant, president-elect of the American Psychological Association, who’s an ordained minister in the AME Church, a trauma psychologist and trauma survivor; Dr. David Morris, a publisher and literary agent who wrote the book “Lost Faith and Wandering Souls”; and Rabbi Seth Winberg, the senior chaplain at Brandeis University.

Watch the webinar here.

Dr. David Morris

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.”

Dr. Natasha Mikles

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.

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.”

Dr. Thema Bryant

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Mental health webinar

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Laurie Griffith, Associate Director, Constitutional Interpretation, Office of the General Assembly
Leann Gritton, Budget Specialist, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Dear Lord, we thank you for your church and its witness and ministry. Be with the ministers and servants who love you, carry their crosses and bear witness to your love for the world. Do not let them get discouraged in their ministry. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church. Amen.