Why Mental Health Treatment and Religion Have a Difficult Relationship

Research shows that mental health treatment can sometimes benefit from a psychotherapist discussing a patient’s religious or spiritual beliefs, but religion and mental health treatment can make uneasy partners. Here’s a look at that relationship.

How Can Religion Play a Part in Mental Health Care?

If someone has a good relationship with their religion–that is to say, that their sources of anxiety or triggers for depression or other mental health issues aren’t related to experiences within religion, something we’ll assume until otherwise stated here–it may be conducive to an overall program of support for a therapist to talk about a patient’s spiritual ideas because there are some psychologically affirming benefits of religion. These can include a sense of community with fellow believers, and an outlook on the world that allows for a greater feeling of being grounded due to a belief in a loving god, for instance.

These traits can provide reassurance and strength for someone going through mental health problems and, as the American Psychological Association notes, may even give people coping mechanisms for tackling difficulties in their day to day lives, for example through prayer (which may work in a similar way to how we understand meditation to be beneficial), and a sense of self-worth.

Experience has shown, too, that religious leaders, for example local pastors, may play a key role in actually getting people the “first response” mental health they need, because often religious figures are put in a position of trust and may be the ones we call in times of great mental stress.

This means that, so long as they are properly qualified, pastors and local religious authorities may be key in getting people the help they need.

Religion may also help us deal with issues of grief that might underpin depression after, say, a loved one dying. A belief in some sort of an afterlife, or at the very least a belief that a loved one is now at peace can help facilitate greater acceptance, and this is probably more accessible if your religion supports the notion of some kind of life after death or caretaker god. We also cannot forget, yet again, the power of the religious community to offer support and help during those vulnerable times.

Is Religious Involvement Always Good for Mental Health Care?

There are times when religious affiliation can actually carry negative qualities that might affect a patient’s mental health and their treatment.

For example, various religions and spiritual beliefs teach different coping mechanisms and self-management strategies. As above, some of these are positive. For instance, a sense of an ever-present, loving creator god could be incredibly reassuring. However, if a patient’s sense of spirituality is threatened or indeed if it is undermined, this can actually cause greater psychological distress, and that’s not hard to understand: If a central pillar of your identity is damaged, you will then be less stable psychologically and will have to either reaffirm it or go through the very long and painful process of building up a new pillar to support yourself.

There are also some recent studies that cast doubt on the notion that religion decreases incidences of mental health problems, leading us to question past literature and whether there might be another factor at play, like the community element for instance.

There is also a limited amount of research that suggests that religious belief may sometimes feed into mental health problems, and that it may present in different ways depending on particular faiths. There’s also another distinct category of how religion can have negative consequences for mental health treatment.

When the Religious Attempt to Impose Their Beliefs on Mental Health Care

Problems do arise however when the religious seek to impose their beliefs on mental health care.

Many religious counselors offer a good service to people and are able to separate their personal beliefs from their commitments to proper standards of care, namely not imposing those beliefs and instead seeking a positive outcome for the patient. However, some counselors cannot. A ready example is when Christian counselors have attempted sexual orientation change therapy or anti-trans therapy on children or adults, despite there being no credible science to support that it is even possible let alone desirable. So too when religious counselors put their beliefs ahead of, say, a woman who is seeking psychological support after terminating a pregnancy, or for that matter before deciding whether she should or not.

In those cases, what is required of the therapist or counselor is to affirm the patient’s worth and to guide them to the best health outcome for them, and not what the counselor might believe is the best outcome based on their religion. Separating these two can be difficult but that must be done to ensure there is no bias in how a patient is being treated.

There’s also the problem of when religious groups attempt to interfere with mental health and medical practices. We know that several religious groups have opposed laws that would prevent people being subjected to LGBT-cure therapy. I reiterate what I’ve said before: this should not be controversial as this is not a valid treatment for anxiety surrounding one’s identity. Regardless, that fight goes on.

This is yet another example of how religious influence can be used to negatively impact mental health care, and in this case is a particular shame because it could condemn people who might have otherwise been helped to then later being arrested and taken into custody, possibly not just for their safety but because, in their altered state, they may have committed a crime.

Religion and mental health care is certainly a complex topic, and above we have only very briefly touched on some of the arguments both for and against its involvement in mental health care, but one thing does emerge very clearly: Religion can offer support to people dealing with mental health problems, but it should never be allowed to dictate the medical treatment that is required to help people recover or manage their mental health issues.