According to a paper on “Spirituality in Mentally Healthy Communities”, 2008 was a year marking a reversal of the trend towards lower church attendance in Canada. Yes, I know, there is a difference between the concepts “religion” and “spirituality”. Spirituality is often thought of as one’s framework for meaning and connection to something “sacred”; in Alcoholics Anonymous they say “a power greater than ourselves.” Religion is considered an institutionalized form of spirituality. Both religion and spirituality play a role in positive mental health.
The aforementioned paper reviews three areas in which spirituality plays a significant role in mental health; depression, chronic illness (like cancer) and mortality.
The evidence seems clear that people with a faith or strong spirituality often do better in terms of depression. More often they face chronic or life threatening illness differently. They tend to cope better when facing death too. The science generally indicates that people with “faith” fare better in these life challenges but it isn’t clear why.
Some think that spirituality leads to religion and religion leads to social support. There is clear scientific evidence that social support plays a significant role in mental and physical health.
It seems logical to speculate that there are certain spiritual or religious beliefs that contribute to improved mental health. Themes like forgiveness, acceptance, believing that our lives matter, love, giving and sharing with others are all hallmarks of positive mental health and great religion. They are also qualities that build communities with reduced conflict. Believing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves is an antidote to loneliness and purposelessness.
On the other hand, we know that there are times when religion can be used as a means of social control, dominance of one group over others, the inflicting of false guilt, petty rules, fear, paranoia, rigidity of thought and critical judgment that divides rather than unites.
We have spectacular failures of religion, such as David Koresh and the Camp Davidians at Waco Texas, or the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana. More moderate forms of these mentally unhealthy forms of religion and spirituality can be an excuse to throw out the baby out with the bathwater and not embrace the hugely important role of spirituality.
Healthy forms of religion play an often unrecognized role as undergirders of mental and physical health. Pastors frequently play the role of front line counselors, marriage and family therapists. In my own case as a pastor once, I was doing so much counseling I realized the wise thing to do would be to pursue further study, to become a psychologist.
The support of prayer and small groups from churches gathering around members in crisis figure significantly in stress reduction. As western society became secular, it seemed that religion and faith might become passé. Science would replace spirit.
Instead, science is just beginning to demonstrate the overall benefit of religion and well tested spiritual beliefs. They must be part of any plan to build mentally healthy communities.
Dr. Rob Lees is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry for Children and Family Development, Chilliwack.