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

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

When it comes to mental health, the aspect of religion that matters the most is the nature of one’s relationship with God.

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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."

High hopes

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.

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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