A couple of weeks ago, I had cause to ask this question: is religion and religious assemblies more or less associated with mental, emotional and psychological disabilities? Given the fact that one in six Canadians suffer from some sort of mental illness, this is an important consideration. I decided to do some looking around for statistics on this and indeed, there is information out there on this.
The study I read indicated that people with mental illnesses are found in greater proportion in religious groups and/or are more religious than in the general population. Now, for those who have an anti-religious bias, it would be tempting to jump to the conclusion of “aha, it helps to be mentally ill to be religious” or “ religion causes mental illness”. The truth, however, may well be quite the opposite.
Here is what is happening: people with an awareness of personal psychological or emotional challenges naturally seek help or healing. They frequently find that the medical community is limited in what it can offer, or all too often prescribe medications which alter their state too far in an unacceptable direction. So, religion is often sought out for answers, for solace, for community, and ultimately for help and healing of the “soul”.
Advocate Jay Mahler explained:
“For many people with mental health issues, spirituality is key to understanding this experience. It is essential in their journey of recovery. Also faith communities have provided a sense of belonging and welcome to me, and to others who have been marginalized and experienced stigma and discrimination resulting from the public’s fear of persons with psychiatric diagnoses.” *
The fact that religious groups are more highly populated with people who face such challenges is a good indicator that they are finding some help there. I would suggest that if you are sitting in your regular church assembly and you aren’t sitting with a significant number of people who are suffering mental illness, then your church may well be ineffective in helping people, and missing out on a tremendous opportunity for a very important work. It’s all-too-tempting to be church-proud, wanting to point out all the wonderful people in your church and cover up, or even push out those who are seeking help and healing.
Dr. Marilyn Baetz, professor and head of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of a study published April 2013 wrote about the connection between religion and mental wellness: “From the believers’ perspective, they have recourse to divine assistance (even a personal relationship in Christian traditions) and thus are less likely to feel alone with the vicissitudes of life.” She added:
“It gives a sense of meaning and purpose that’s difficult to measure but it’s an important component of feeling wholeness in life — people feeling like they have something to live for.” *
One other tidbit in the statistics I saw was that there is a noticeably higher proportion of people reporting mental illness among those who consider themselves “spiritual” but unaffiliated to any church group. This is an indictment against the positive effects of institutional churches. It is an indication that many people have sought help and solace in a church setting, and found none, or even worse, rejection because of their “bad spirit”. All too many churches try to keep their group free of people who are struggling in life, blaming it on their lack of faith or commitment, or some other such flimsy excuse to remain elitist.
It’s little wonder that institutional churches are on an intractable decline……many aren’t serving needs even though the opportunities right in front of them. Religion can and should offer many attributes that are associated with healing of the soul: compassion, understanding, truth, charity, community, moral clarity, tolerance, patience, and kindness to the struggling person. God is found in those attributes. Instead, the struggles are often focused on religious polity, control, traditions, and inane theologies which make little sense to anyone but the theologians. Throw in some religious abuse that fosters fear, doubt and guilt, and you have a toxic church, not a healing one.
Churches have many tremendous opportunities to serve their communities, and by throwing the doors open to the “highways and byways” like the story of the wedding feast, churches have the potential to become powerful forces for good in the world. Some churches are awakening to this opportunity and doing some great work. Let’s hope that many more begin to see this.