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Religion and mental health: Exploring ideas about God may be integral to finding healing

Published: Friday, Dec. 14 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Ellor and his colleague Matthew Stanford, a Baylor psychology professor, are in the early stages of research that they hope could fill that void. By understanding various concepts of God and how people believe God interacts with them, therapists can be provided with new tools to help patients find comfort in times of pain, Ellor said.

"I have high hopes it will give us a new generation of intervention to emotionally help people address their needs," he said.

America's four Gods

Ellor said their research is expanding on the work of Froese and Christopher Bader, of Chapman University, who co-authored "America's Four Gods: What We Say About God and What That Says About Us." The groundbreaking research found people identified with either an authoritative God, a benevolent God, a critical God or a distant God. Falling into one of those categories was a predictor of a person's behavior regardless of background, religion or politics.

Ellor and Stanford have added a "no-God," or atheist, category in their research. The five categories cut across all faith traditions, Ellor said.

"The answer to the question, 'Who is God?' is going to tell you about the nature of the person and how they view and deal with suffering issues," he said. "That’s helpful in health care circles because a whole lot of the pain issues stimulate the question of 'Why me?' In disaster relief work you get a lot of these questions."

Ellor stressed, however, that the most effective way of answering that question is from within that person's view of or belief in God, not by trying to change the belief. His research will identify how people can find comfort within their concept of God and how mental health care professionals and counselors can assess that to help patients find meaning in times of pain.

By singling out and resolving that aspect of a personal crisis, Ellor explained, the therapist can then help patients understand that other things troubling them may be depression or another condition that can be treated with medication or other therapies.

Ellor is aware that traditional therapists have long dismissed religious and spiritual experiences as delusions that don't reflect a person's actual mental state. He agrees that religious experiences and beliefs are distinct from mental health conditions, but at the same time, he said, to ignore beliefs is to risk ignoring a possible source of an individual's pain and suffering.

He recalls treating a woman who was suffering from postpartum depression but believed she was in the middle of a battle between good and evil that was preventing her from feeling close to God. When she believed the devil was urging to kill her newborn, she checked herself into a hospital.

Rather than writing her off as crazy, Ellor, who was a chaplain at the hospital, talked with her about her faith and what it taught about her relationship with God. He helped her realize that she was doing all the right things — praying, reading the Bible, going to church — to be close to God and what she needed to deal with was her own depressive feelings.

"We grounded her into feeling close to God and the need to replace those depressive feelings with light of God, joy feelings," Ellor said. "She never did accept the postpartum diagnosis, but we functionally got her to where she needed to be" by using her faith to find the solution.

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