Religion and mental health: Exploring ideas about God may be integral to finding healing
George Broadhead hasn't had heat or hot water since Hurricane Sandy hit his Brooklyn, N.Y., community of Gerritsen Beach six weeks ago. But his faith in God and in himself generates enough inner warmth and confidence to get up everyday and resume his daily routines.
"As for faith, God infused me with life and I have faith in myself. That’s why I don’t feel like anything can knock me down," the 80-year-old Korean War veteran said in late November.
According to research by Baylor University sociologists, Broadhead's belief in a God who has blessed him with the strength to take care of himself and others correlates with his self-described low level of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
"When it comes to mental health, the aspect of religion that matters the most is the nature of one’s relationship with God," the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey concluded.
The survey found that prayer, religious affiliation and activity — the longstanding measures of religiosity in Western culture — had little effect on someone's reported mental health. Instead, it was a person's spiritual worldview that more often mapped onto their psychological state. Researchers found that people who believe their troubles are the result of God exacting judgment because of sin have higher levels of anxiety, paranoia and compulsion than those who believe in a caring, engaged God who will help them cope with life's challenges.
"One of the motivations behind this research was to make clear to the (sociology) profession that religious beliefs matter," said Dr. Paul Froese, a Baylor sociologist and researcher for the survey. "To the average person that may not seem like a revelation. But to social scientists that‘s a hard sell."
The relevance of religious beliefs in mental health therapy is an easy sell to Jim Ellor, a professor of social work at Baylor, a practicing therapist and an ordained Presbyterian minister.
He recounts an experience he had as a hospital chaplain when a Hindu woman died of a brain aneurysm. The woman's daughter was distraught because she thought an argument she and her mother had had just before her mother was found unconscious had caused her mother's death.
No amount of explaining by medical experts that the aneurysm would have happened anyway could console the girl, Ellor said.
"I didn’t know what to do, but her aunt came in and explained karma (a Hindu belief that meant the mother was predestined to have an aneurysm) and all of the sudden she found comfort in knowing it was karma," Ellor recalled. "The child understood it, and now she was in a normal grieving process, rather than blaming herself."
For decades the role of religion in mental health care treatment was limited to knowing a patient's religious affiliation so the caregiver would know whom to call — not in order to use that information in treatment. In the mental health fields, the standard for understanding how religion played into behavior was knowing how many times a patient prayed or attended church.
But that started to change in the 1970s and 1980s, reflecting a growing diversity of faith traditions that didn't measure a person's spirituality by measurable actions like church attendance or prayer. Today, Ellor explained, the standard for understanding a person's spirituality is based on an individual's relationship with God and not solely on their affiliation with a religion.
What's still missing, however, is a robust explanation of how that information can be useful to therapists in treating their patients.
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