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Defining the gap between the worlds of faith and mental health

Here are the key takeaways from a recent discussion about the intersections of mental health and religion

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

A recent webinar by The Associated Press titled “Does faith have a place in mental health?” addressed the divide between the two seemingly taboo topics. The event on Wednesday served as a kickoff discussion for the release of several articles on the subjects from the AP, the Conversation and Religion News Service.

Natasha Mikles, an assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Texas State University, hosted. The panelists were Thema Bryant, president-elect of the American Psychological Association; David Morris, a psychologist and author; and Rabbi Seth Winberg, executive director and senior chaplain at Brandeis Hillel.

Here are some takeaways from the discussion:

The gap between religion and mental health

Religion often focuses on the things not seen, while psychology is a science often focused on facts, panelists said.

“There’s a strong empiricism, a strong focus on facts, in the discipline of psychology,” Morris said. “What’s true are only the things that are observed; that cuts across American culture in general.”

These conflicting viewpoints, Bryant said, are a cause of the disconnect between two communities: those in the mental health field versus those in faith groups. 

“There’s research that shows that mental health providers, on average, endorse lower religiosity than the general public,” she said. “You have those that don’t self-identify as persons of faith who are creating therapeutic models for people whose faith can be very central. We’re using two different languages.”

Bryant said that it’s not a scenario where you should have only one or the other, religion or therapy. Tools from both fields should be implemented together as a custom mix for each individual, she said.

Bryant noted that her organization has a division that helps fill the gap between psychology and religion. It builds collaborations between the religious and psychological communities to find better outcomes than what either one alone could provide.

Religion can help or harm mental health

Bryant used an example from research conducted during Hurricane Katrina. Several children were asked about their perspective on God during that moment of extreme emotion. There was a theme among the answers: The kids said God had either saved them or inflicted the harm as punishment. 

Those two mindsets are present in the religious world in general, Bryant said, and they hold implications for mental health.

When faith is regarded as beneficial by the individual, they are on the positive side of religion or demonstrating “positive religious coping.” The children who answered in the positive about God demonstrated this mindset. 

On the other hand, there is a negative mindset we can develop from religion that Bryant called “negative religious coping.” Instead of seeing God as good, the children who held this view saw their pain as sent by God to punish them. This belief can be destructive to mental health because it often leads to feelings of guilt.

Rabbi Winberg described this feeling of fear or guilt as a potent emotion that can determine if we positively or negatively cope with religious beliefs. It can be a determining factor for whether religion hurts or helps in cases of depression and in general mental well-being, he said. 

According to Morris, the U.S. is in need of “rounding out” mentalities such as these so that fewer Americans will be on the extremes of this spectrum of belief.

Change will require effort

In Mikles’ classroom at Texas State University, she often shares a phrase about the importance of individuality. She said during the event that mental health professionals should keep that same lesson in mind.

“There is no such thing as Christianity, there’s only Christians,” Mikles said. “There is no such thing as Islam, there’s only Muslims. It’s about centralizing individuals.”

Rabbi Winberg suggested that, moving forward, religious professionals, such as himself, will have to advocate for their congregations to get help outside of the religious realm. Faith leaders can recommend mental health professionals, he said.

Rabbi Winberg and other panelists expressed hope that it’s possible to overcome the current gap between faith and mental health. If and when the gap is closed, it will be for the good of both worlds, they said.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the American Psychological Association is planning to create a new department to address the gap between psychology and religion. A division dedicated to this task already exists.