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Balancing faith and mental health: Both complex, important to well being

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Spirituality and mental health are connected, and psychologists say that relationship is both complex and important to understand for every person’s individual well being.

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A young mother struggling with bulimia was asked one day by her therapist if she ever prayed.

“She lived on a small farm, had a simple life and she was a wonderful mother,” said Michael Berrett, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. “But she hated herself with a passion. She was throwing up five times a day.”

The woman said she did pray, and went on to list all the people and things she prayed for. The list was long, and Berrett noticed that she left herself completely off it.

“I asked her, ‘Do you ever pray for yourself?’” Berrett said. "And she said, ‘No.’”

The woman decided to give it a try, and later said that was the turning point in her recovery.

Berrett and other LDS psychologists say the relationship between spirituality and mental health is both complex and important to understand for every person’s individual well being. A person's belief system is a vital part of coping with life’s problems, and many psychologists make it a central aspect of therapy.

Religiously devout have better mental health

Scott Richards, professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University, said there are occasionally news reports about how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are more mentally unhealthy than other people. But, he has never seen evidence to support the claim.

Marleen Williams, a clinical professor of counseling physiology who served as president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, noticed a similar trend.

“You always see the stereotype about Mormon women being more depressed,” she said. “No study has ever shown Mormon women to be more depressed. In fact, spirituality is actually something that helps people.”

According to the Utah Department of Health, Utah has the highest number of antidepressants prescriptions in the country. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times published an article on this study. The article quoted several people stating that the pressure of perfection from the Mormon culture is what caused Utahns to be depressed, especially women.

Daniel K. Judd, who earned a doctorate in counseling psychology at BYU, said in a BYU forum in 2006 that perhaps one of the reasons Utah residents use more antidepressants than the rest of the nation is because they are more educated and aware of the symptoms and treatments of depression and are more likely to seek out help when they need it.

Though there have been few studies that have found any difference between LDS Church members and those of other religions, Richards said there have been hundreds of studies that have shown evidence that religiously devout people — in any denomination — enjoy more positive mental health and psychosocial adjustment than people who are less religious or not religious at all.

“Clearly the research has supported the idea that being involved in a religion is beneficial to a person’s mental health,” Richards said.

Tim Smith, department chair of counseling psychology at BYU, said the effect faith has on a person’s mental health depends on how they live it and how they internalize it. He named three main factors that change how a person’s beliefs affect their well being.

The first factor is how they live their beliefs. Someone who holds a certain set of beliefs but lives contrary to those beliefs is more likely to develop mental health problems. On the flip side, people who fully live their established beliefs have an increased chance for mental health.

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