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The stigma attached to mental health in religious communities

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Despite recent efforts to normalize and promote the importance of mental health, it is still a topic we fear to discuss openly. People who experience mental health challenges are either seen as aggressive and violent or weak and incompetent. These misconceptions create stigmas that make it harder for everyone involved.

Stigma is present in primarily two ways; public stigma and self-stigma. What others think of you as a person dealing with mental health oftentimes leads to self-stigma. To deal with the stigmas in our communities and move forward, we have to know where these stigmas originate.

Although not factual, people periodically use religion to perpetuate stigmas. Negative religious beliefs are sometimes used to paint a picture of an angry God that only punishes and abandons His creation. This can take a toll on a person’s mental health and push them away from seeking medical help. However, not everyone believes that physical and mental afflictions are a product of God’s punishment and wrath. To explore this phenomenon, I interviewed Katherine Reinhard, a friend of mine that belongs to the Lutheran Church so I could see things from her point of view. 

Fatimah Abdullahi: How does your religion or spirituality positively and negatively impact your mental health and wellness?

Katherine Reinhard: My religion positively impacts my mental health and wellness because I worship, serve, and believe in a God who never leaves me and cares about how I feel. He knows all my inner feelings, and I can always count on him. I know I am deeply loved both by God and by fellow Christians.

FA: How is mental health viewed in your congregation, and what are some stigmas associated with mental health in your worship community?

KR: I think that the Christian church would say that mental health issues are struggled with because there is sin in the world, but not because you personally have sinned or that you did something specific that resulted in them. Mental health is viewed as something that is important, but it is deeply intertwined with spiritual health. I believe God will help you through any struggles you have, and he cares about your mental health. 

FA: What are some verses in the Bible that you can reflect on that speak on mental health or you can share with someone in your faith group if they are experiencing challenges around their mental health?

KR: Well I would say the whole book of Psalms because it is basically a journal from David of his struggles and how, through them, he knows God is with him and gives him glory. But here are a few others: Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:38-39, Isaiah 43:2.

FA: Do you feel the church or places of worship should offer mental health services? 

KR: Absolutely – there is no peace like the type of peace and freedom that God can offer.  

FA: Do you think mental illness is viewed as a sign of weak faith or punishment for your sins in your church or community of worship? 

KR: I think that is a misconception that that is how Christians feel. I think it is a result of the sinful world we live in, but not because of a specific sin someone committed.  

From the interview with Katherine, we can infer that there is little to no stigma in her church. Nonetheless, 91% of Christians think that there is a stigma in their churches. When people have this fear of being ostracized for dealing with mental health, they’d rather suppress their feelings which can later on lead to depression or even possibly escalate to suicide. 

I can see why this is a misconception in the church because when we talk about faith, our mind immediately jumps to tie it to the mind and the soul. People separate the physical body from the mental body which leads to the conclusion that if you are mentally ill, then you must be having a crisis in faith. Some might even go as far as to pull Bible verses to prove their point without thinking of the context of the specific verse. The correlation between sin and being mentally ill is non-existent. If we were to link the two, shouldn’t everyone be punished with a mental illness since we all sin? 

The stigma of mental health is not specific to one certain religious community, however. It spans across the board. For instance, as a Muslim, I often hear narratives about mental health in a completely negative light. At times, I ask myself where people get their information from. Every so often, our community dismisses the medical aspect of mental health. 

Treating mental health is supposed to be a holistic treatment of the mind, body, and soul. Because of misconceptions, people do not seek out intervention until it is too late. The statement, “Mental health is the result of not adhering to the religion enough, therefore it is God’s punishment,” makes its rounds in the community when it is nothing but blatant lies. The belief is that you wouldn’t feel depressed or have anxiety if you have a strong bond with God. However, I personally think that the underlying motive of people who make such claims is to project what they feel onto others. Mental illness is also occasionally associated with demon possession and evil spirits. 

A prevailing argument is, “Why should I see a therapist when the prophet himself did not?” 

As a practicing Muslim, I would reply that Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] not only acknowledged and addressed psychological challenges, but he also laid the foundation for generations of Muslim scholars to discover, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders. Reframing the perspective of emotions, embracing them, acknowledging them, taking care of oneself, seeking out cures for any illness, and remembering God are all useful ways to cope with mental health as our prophet taught us. The prophet himself said, “There is no disease that Allah has created, except that he also has created its treatment.” In correspondence with that saying, telling people to pray away their mental illnesses and wait for miracles was never a solution, and it never will be. You would not think about telling someone to pray away their cancer, so why utter words like that to someone already suffering from a mental illness? 

A barricade when seeking treatment for mental illnesses for some religious people is fear of providers not understanding the importance of spirituality as the foundation of who they are as a person. When modern science and medicine are secularized, it can be daunting to talk to a provider who is not cognizant of your values and ethics. Due to this, people would rather talk to the religious leaders in their communities who might not even be qualified to give diagnoses and countermeasures. It is essential for those in religious leadership positions to seek training on the right way to deal with mentally ill individuals in their congregations. Being conscious and familiar with mental health can break the barriers and urge people to seek help from medical professionals. 

On the other hand, it is crucial for providers to discern that faith might be a critical part of their patient’s life. For instance, clinicians should be informed if their patients are observing a fast so as to adjust medication times during fasting in Ramadhan or during the season of Lent. Infusing cognitive therapy with spiritual practices can also be used as a measure to treat mental illnesses of individuals with God at the center of their lives. 

Changing the adverse narrative around mental health is imperative for people to seek medical intervention early on. We can destigmatize mental health by distinguishing myths from reality. Moreover, we can also make an effort to decrease the impacts of stigmas by talking about mental health more openly and educating ourselves about different types of mental illnesses as well as their symptoms. It is equally important to have compassion and empathy toward people dealing with mental illnesses and diseases for it goes a long way in overcoming the dilemmas stigmas formulate. 

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