It’s estimated that more than 50 million adults in America will experience some form of mental health condition in their lifetimes. That’s around 20% of the entire adult population of the United States.
In addition, a recent Pew Research study found that, though self-reported religious affiliation rates have declined in recent years, more than 70% of Americans still consider themselves to be religious.
Given the ubiquity of both mental health challenges and religious belief, it is inevitable that mental health and spiritual faith will interact at some point in the lives of millions of Americans. This intersection, however, is not always an easy or comfortable one. Indeed, the relationship between the psychological and the spiritual is often highly complex and conflicted.
Persons of faith, for instance, may feel especially stigmatized when it comes to mental illness. They may also struggle to reconcile their spiritual beliefs with their experience of mental health challenges. The reality, however, is that faith and mental health problems are not mutually exclusive, nor is mental healthcare incompatible with religious belief. The marriage of religion and counseling can, indeed, create a powerful alliance to support health and healing in mind as well as spirit.
Mental Health Care and Religious Practice
Whether you are a faith leader, a congregant, or simply a believer, there can be a place for mental health care in your spiritual life and practice. The key lies in understanding that neither mental illness nor the pursuit of mental healthcare is a token of a lack of faith. You do not have to abandon your spiritual beliefs to seek the help you need.
Mental health conditions are health conditions just like any other. They derive from a combination of factors, the principal of which are often physiological in nature. However, even when mental health challenges emerge from situational rather than biological origins, as in the aftermath of a trauma, that by no means suggests that you would be “healed” of your suffering if you just had enough faith.
Your pain and distress are neither a divine punishment nor a hallmark of spiritual weakness. To ascribe a mental health issue to some innate spiritual deficiency that you can just pray or believe your way through isn’t just misguided — it’s also dangerous.
Unfortunately, persons of faith may resist or even refuse to seek the health care they desperately need because their faith culture leads them to believe that a “truly” faithful person will not need mental health counseling. This means that a fundamental cultural shift is needed within the faith community, one that destigmatizes mental illness, disassociating it from the idea of spiritual “deficiency,” and recognizing the true origins of mental illness in physiology, trauma, and other factors.
The Impact of Religious Trauma
Unfortunately, religion may dissuade the faithful from seeking the mental health care they need to overcome physiological disease or past trauma. Even more troubling, religion may, in fact, be a source of trauma, particularly for historically marginalized populations.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community, for example, may suffer significant psychological abuse in faith communities, where they may be stigmatized, ostracized, repudiated, or worse. For these populations, the yearning for a spiritual connection, for a religious home, may be complicated by the fear of rejection. This conflict alone can create profound psychological distress — distress that is only amplified when such traumas lead LGBTQ+ parishioners and other vulnerable populations to avoid mental health care.
In light of the particular spiritual and mental health needs of these marginalized communities, it’s incumbent upon faith leaders, counselors, and parishioners alike to understand and seek to better serve these communities. For example, LGBTQ+ persons experiencing addiction may benefit from treatment programs specifically directed toward the LGBTQ+ community.
Similarly, spiritual leaders seeking to serve marginalized communities must strive to recognize and address the very real religion-based traumas these congregants may have experienced in the past.
Integrating Faith and Mental Health Care
No matter what your past experiences with religion, mental health, or the intersection of the two may have been, when you are in mental or emotional distress, the path to wellness will almost assuredly require you to learn how to integrate the two.
A particularly important aspect of this involves finding the right counselor for you. More specifically, you will want to consider the kind of therapist you’re going to feel most comfortable with. It is very possible, for example, to find a therapist whose approach is rooted in spiritual practices and teachings, enabling you and your counselor to formulate an approach that integrates spirituality with other mental health tools, from meditation and mindfulness to talk therapy.
For far too long, religion and mental health counseling have been misperceived as antithetical to one another. The reality, however, is that faith and mental healthcare can, in fact, be complementary. This recognition is imperative and urgently needed to ensure that faith leaders, mental healthcare practitioners, and persons of faith are to support true healing for those who have for too long suffered in silence.