Religion as Mental Illness Treatment

by Jayne Yerrick

Science Cafe in Front Room Coffeehouse, Photo by Jayne Yerrick

Mental illness has consistently been an issue facing many Americans, yet it seems to be something that is difficult for people to talk about. Roughly 46 million Americans struggle with mental illness, so why is mental health rarely discussed?

Rebekah Crawford, a visiting professor at Ohio University, is a health communication scholar that directly addresses mental health and examines its intersection with religion, which happens to be another topic that most people shy away from talking about. Crawford has conducted extensive research on the relationship between mental health and religious organizations, and she spoke about the benefits and harmful effects of seeking out religious organizations for mental health support at the Science Cafe on Oct. 2.

Crawford was inspired to start her research after interviewing a pastor about his experiences with psychological distress. The pastor told her about the time he helped a man that was on the verge of committing suicide. Crawford was shocked to learn that this situation was a common occurrence for the pastor, and she decided to dig deeper into why people are inclined to use religious organizations as a way to cope with mental illness. 

Mental illness is much more common than it may seem. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one out of every five Americans struggles with mental health issues. This makes Crawford’s research all that more relevant. This large portion of America that has a mental illness seeks out a wide range of institutions for treatment, including religious organizations.

People turn to religious organizations for mental health support for numerous reasons. Many people tend to feel more comfortable speaking with their religious leaders because they have a close bond with them. Crawford revealed that a common issue people have with traditional therapy is that some patients do not trust their therapists. Religious leaders are able to alleviate this sense of mistrust for those with a mental illness, as religious leaders tend to be heavily involved in their lives.

Typically, it also is much more convenient for people to stop by their church rather than schedule an appointment with a therapist, which means that religious leaders tend to be more accessible than professional therapists or psychiatrists.

This makes it easy to see why people turn to their religion to cope with their mental health problems, but what are the effects of doing this? 

Religious organizations provide resources that trained therapists are sometimes unable to provide. High costs, long waitlists and stigma all stand in the way of people seeking out a traditional mental health treatment, so talking to religious leaders about mental illness can be an attractive alternative.

Crawford mentioned that even here in Athens, local churches reported that students stopped by to ask for mental health advice and guidance, even though these students had never set foot in that church before and they did not intend to again.

This shows that a key benefit of religious organizations is that they give free resources and guidance to those who feel helpless. Some churches go the extra mile to support the mentally ill, by recommending professional resources and even providing the funds that are needed to access those resources.

“Religious organizations are able to reach people who often don’t get reached,” Crawford pointed out. 

But as with most things, there are downsides to using religious organizations for emotional support. For example, Crawford mentioned how seeking mental health support from religion can be harmful to women in particular. This is especially prevalent in cases where women are sexually assaulted. Crawford said that women do not always receive the proper support they need from their religion. 

She talked about how one woman she interviewed was drugged and raped, and the religious leader that the woman spoke to sparked feelings of guilt in the victim’s mind. Survivors of sexual assault are likely to blame themselves for their assault, and the religious leader promoted this by bringing up religious ideas about consent and promiscuity.

“In some religious communities that I have researched, narratives about consent are so silenced that women experience sexual violence and don’t diagnose it as such,” Crawford said. “They immediately go, ‘I sinned.’”

This example presents an obvious harmful effect of using religious organizations for emotional support, but many people argue that religion does wonders for their mental health. Crawford has closely examined this relationship between mental health and religion to see whether religion has a positive effect on mental health. Her conclusion? It’s complicated. 

Crawford said that determining whether religion is a positive way to treat mental illness depends on a plethora of factors. These factors include the type of religion, how strictly religion is practiced, diversity in religion, family values and more. There is no black-and-white answer to whether religious organizations are overall beneficial or detrimental to mental health.

Crawford wrapped up her presentation by urging the audience to be more aware of other religions and the mental health issues that so many people struggle with. She reinforced the belief that both nonsecular and secular ways of viewing the world are valid, and she called for unity when it comes to mental health support. 

Crawford expressed that coming together to support those with mental illness is most important in this instance, not one’s religious or nonreligious views of the world.

“It’s on us to take care of each other,” Crawford stated. “It’s on us.”

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