Church and Mental Health

Why Going to Church Can Make You Mentally Sick

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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

The church, whatever church it may be, is not necessarily a place to go to get mentally healthy. More truthfully, it may work the other way around: going to church could make your mental health worse by neglecting to learn essential skills.

I am a church going person, and yet, I say this plainly in the same way a person would NOT recommend a church as the place to go to correct a broken bone or to get treatment for tooth decay. Why would anyone do this? There seems to be a belief that depressions and anxieties, and other related mental health problems can (and even should be) treated by belief-in and obedience-to religious principles, morals and values.

I see that people remain misguided in this way. I see the misguidedness because of the many who continue to attend church every Sunday (and even do church-related activities throughout the week), every week, and yet remain in their depressed and anxious states no matter how much “churchy” stuff they do (attending church meetings, saying prayers, scripture readings, service projects, other acts of obedience, etc. etc. etc.).

I have even been told stories of people going on church missions for 1-2 years straight, dedicating all of their energy to serving God during this time, but then leaving their missions early due to debilitating mental health conditions. Don’t tell me these people weren’t doing enough “churchy” stuff to qualify for symptom relief from the almighty!

It is evident to me that religious people are often misguided in their church beliefs because devotees even commit suicide! Yes, people die from mental health problems despite going to church every Sunday and otherwise adhering to church systems. What is wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, when church activities don’t seem to be working as expected (not creating enough symptom relief, or people die, or whatever), dangerous assumptions may arise. These assumptions may sound like “I must not deserve God’s grace” or “I’m must not be applying the religious teachings strictly or consistently enough to qualify for God’s grace” or “I’m failing God!” or “God must hate me!” or “My punishment for past mistakes must not be over yet”.

In other words, people often start to blame themselves, to guilt and shame themselves, when they don’t get the symptom relief they are looking for through their church participation. And yet, for some reason, the preferred choice is to let these kinds of assumptions go unchallenged, and to take on all sorts of toxic emotions (guilt and shame, etc.) rather than to say out loud “THE CHURCH DOESN’T HELP WITH MY MENTAL HEALTH!” “It just doesn’t work for that!”

But people don’t talk about these things.

Is it a slap in the face for religion and God to say things like this? I don’t think so. On the contrary, I would say it is more realistic to NOT expect things from places where they are not forthcoming.

Churches are communities of people making attempts to support each other in life and spirituality, believing in things to help put up with life’s inevitable sufferings, and likewise to have a system for working through death and navigating the afterlife (whatever that may mean for them), but nothing more. NOTHING! So why make it into something more than what it is?

In my practice, I have met several people who have tortured themselves for years by believing they were unworthy of God’s grace because their religious faith did not create the expected symptom relief. So instead of getting the right kinds of skills to manage thoughts and feelings effectively (something that would result in symptom relief) the person instead goes round and round in unhealthy thoughts and toxic emotions (guilt, shame, worthlessness, guilt, shame, worthlessness, etc.) endlessly. Pleasant, eh?

Not to mention, if additional thought related, emotional or relational issues (separate from the church obedience/symptom-relief expectation issue) are part of the problem, chances are high the misguided believer will AGAIN turn to religious traditions, principles and values for problem resolution. But chances are good the believer will AGAIN be disappointed by the results and assume blame for things not working out/feeling better.

Sadly, others sharing the same belief system (even if indirectly or inadvertently) will reinforce the unrealistic ideas through their church communications/talks that often aren’t discussed after they are given. Therefore a person keeps going home from church with the simple idea: “The best way to prosper is to strictly follow the teachings” As if the word “prosper” was meant to be all-inclusive for mental health.

Listen! You don’t get skilled in understanding and taking care of mental health problems by going to church. Churches are not mental health clinics and are not all-inclusive for solving these kinds of issues.

But people don’t talk about these things.







photo credit: nan palmero Praying at Church via photopin (license)

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