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**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer
Surely most would agree that people are regularly looking for ways to get relief from psychological distress, even if their looking is misguided or not well-informed. Perhaps most could also agree that mental health is not a commonly understood subject or commonly pursued avenue for getting psychological relief, even though that is exactly what mental health services was designed for. And if considerations like these at least hold some truth, then perhaps it is safe to suggest that many people might first turn to religion rather than mental health services to find relief to common mental health problems (e.g., anxiety, depression, emotional disorder, etc.).
In my experience studying and practicing psychology, learning about and participating in religion, and having extremely challenging mental health issues (Borderline Personality Disorder), I have learned very well what religion can and can not do for mental health. In my experience, there is definite confusion regarding the extent to which mental health problems can be alleviated through religious participation, simply because it is the nature of religion to make frequent generalizing statements about “finding peace” and “being blessed”. It is also my experience that without sufficient learning about mental health while being involved in religion, the confusion about how to effectively alleviate psychological suffering can remain ongoing, even until illness leads to self-destruction.
All that being said, I do also recognize that gaining an understanding about the differences between religion and mental health will be more relevant to people who have genetic predispositions or other mental health risk factors (e.g., past trauma, unhealthy family members, broken attachments with caregivers, etc.). In other words, people WITHOUT predispositions and risk factors could participate in religion and claim their participation adequately addresses their internal issues, and then follow this up with making claims that religious participation could do the same for everyone else. On the other hand, others WITH predispositions and risk factors might have an entirely different experience and remain frustrated, and then perhaps believe “they are bad” for not having the same experience as a person without risk factors.
The following questions and answers now form my general opinion about the above-noted issues.
- Do people turn to religion to correct thought and emotion disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and personality disorders? Absolutely, yes, although I would speculate more often than not these people are failing to realize they are using religion for these purposes. It isn’t uncommon at all for people to be looking for psychological relief from anywhere but the mental health clinic.
- Do people sometimes experience temporary relief from psychological distress when they engage in their religious practices? Absolutely, yes! Keep in mind, however, that in science it has been proven that powerful belief can temporarily alter experience (it’s called the placebo effect). Experiencing the placebo effect is not a lasting correction for a mental health issue; in fact, it could turn into an addiction for temporary relief from symptoms.
- Was religion designed to address thought and emotion disorders? Absolutely not! In fact, it may do just the opposite when a person has yet to receive the proper psychological assistance. Even so, there are many who continue futilely looking to religion (and acting on religious prescriptions) as a way to experience lasting psychological relief.
It was my experience as I participated in religion to be desperately seeking psychological relief but progressively getting more and more unhealthy as I falsely believed “following the faith” would simply result in “blessings” and help me in various ways (including mental health). And for this reason, it continues to baffle and annoy me how it is rarely (if ever) stated during church sermons, talks, testimonies, etc., that following religious prescriptions DOES NOT (CANNOT) solve complex mental health problems. Instead, it is much more likely for people to make broad /sweeping assertions and simplistic claims – without admitting they are doing this – about receiving “blessings” for obedience to rules that have no bearing on brain health whatsoever.
My observations and experience inform me that “church talk” is received by desperate people to mean whatever they wish it to mean. Furthermore, after church talks are given, no one seems to care or consider the high likelihood that a percentage of the membership goes home absolutely misguided and confused about how to deal with complex mental health problems. It is not uncommon, for instance, to go home from church believing extra attention is needed in bible study, or prayer, or paying tithes and offerings, so as to be less depressed and experience less conflict with family members. But what do these practices actually have to do with, for instance, learning more about communication skills or learning skills to settle the emotional areas of the brain?
**My ongoing issue with religion, therefore, concerns the ongoing lack of clarity and informed consent about the limitations for what church and church practices can actually offer for dealing with mental health issues: very complex issues and less complex issues alike.
Since mental illness is such a common problem, then wouldn’t it make lots of sense to regularly inform church participants that what they are hearing is NOT ENOUGH to solve complex mental health problems – especially since it is apparently common to reach false conclusions about what religion can realistically do to help? I have to wonder if this ongoing lack of using informed consent has something to do with the perceived infallibility of the power of God, or the perceived infallibility of church doctrines and practices to “make life better”. Perhaps it is the religious expression of narcissism to rarely (if ever) admit that religious practices fail to solve complex psychological problems. Perhaps it is normalized mental health ignorance, laziness, or stupidity.
My sincere advice to anyone facing serious mental health struggles is to never give your religion (or any other religion) the benefit of the doubt to resolve your issues. Take your mental health concerns to places where the needed understandings and skills are abundantly available – THE MENTAL HEALTH CLINIC. Religion can rarely (if ever) be the whole solution to a complex mental health problem, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Ask yourself… would you be looking for outside professional help if you were getting your appendix removed? Of course, you would! The same exact logic applies to mental health conditions like BPD.
I bought into the assertions and simplistic claims delivered at church multiple times before finding the information I needed in a mental health clinic to make the adjustments I needed. After all, it is quite often suggested at church that God can solve any problem, if only you are faithful and obedient enough to become worthy of His assistance. Who wouldn’t believe these kinds of claims and remain misguided and confused when they are in a state of quiet desperation, and when no one is saying outright (and regularly) that the religious expressions and instructions may not be enough to solve complex mental health problems?
I have written a similar article about the apparent lack of understanding and clarity with regards to religion and mental health that can be found here. I believe it is an important ethical matter and morally proper to speak out on these matters, as it seems to be a topic rarely discussed, especially among churchgoers.