Michael W. Higgins: There is now abundant empirical evidence that spirituality and faith are major contributors to human well being, mental health, and indeed general happiness. The Royal Society of Psychiatry in Britain now has some 20-per-cent-plus of its members enrolled in the section on spirituality and psychiatry. In fact, we have a bit of an industry.
Lorna Dueck: Love and hope taken for granted, on the downside of this I do know in my evangelical tradition that pressures of “happy clappy Jesus has the victory” will sometimes compound suffering. It leaves those with mental illness feeling lonely, stigmatized and afraid to reach out for help or turn for medication. With the professionalization of this field, clergy have been moving more into partnerships with the medical community on depression and mental health.
Chris Hannay: Michael, how does spirituality influence the practice of psychiatry?
Michael W. Higgins: Psychiatrists have taken in some jurisdictions to creating a spiritual profile of their clients in order to better appreciate the complexity, richness and sometimes pathology that define their personal faith. Such a profile allows for a better appreciation of the constitutive role that faith plays in the life of the patient, neither diminishing its significance, marginalizing it, or dispensing with it during the process of healing.
Lorna Dueck: I think there are many instances in life where it is not enough to meditate the mental health challenge away. While I do believe that taking time to set our mind on scriptures and adjusting our identity to what God says about our humanity helps, there are many circumstances where this is far from enough. Relationships that stick with a person, that really go the second mile on asking, how can I love you, are an indispensable gift a faith community brings around a suffering person. Hearing stories from each other on which therapeutic help can be resourced, medication, practices, all these things need to available in a de-stigmatized environment of church community.
Sheema Khan: I think what Professor Higgins brings up is very important – a multi-disciplinary approach to mental health. Psychological and medical perspectives are essential. However, we should also include other aspects of an individual’s life – such as spirituality – as a means to treat the individual as a whole (mind, body and spirit).
Lorna’s points are well-taken too. Sometimes, religious expectations, or community expectations, can do far more harm than good. Those who are ready to pronounce judgments, or approach individuals without sensitivity, should really stay away. For many immigrant communities, mental health issues have carried negative connotations, and shame. Only recently has there been a greater push to de-stigmatize mental health issues (much like wider Canadian society), and find approaches that will help to alleviate suffering. A lot of education also needs to be done.
Howard Voss-Altman: Organized Jewish life has not been as responsive to mental health issues in our community. Our success as a minority group continues to reinforce the belief that our families enjoy perfect lives, without the maladies that other groups suffer from. As a result, Jews struggling with mental illness feel even further away from synagogue life, which tends to be family-oriented and celebratory. We must begin to overcome our internal façade of false perfection in order to recognize the isolation that many of our people experience.
Michael W. Higgins: There was a time, certainly, when mental health was so poorly understood — it is marginally better now — that people of faith tended to confine mental and emotional disorders to the realms of possession, rational imbalance, and obduracy. We don’t do that any more and we see medical science working with us rather than against us in the comprehensive undertaking that we call human integration.
Lorna Dueck: It was incredible to read of the House of Commons tackling the need over teen suicide recently, and you could hear the tenderness as MPs gave voice to the need. It reminded me of where healing begins. In taking the pain out of hiding. In a faith community that should be the first line of defence. A young girl I recently interviewed who struggled with the darkest thoughts in her mental health worried her clinical depression should be just prayed away by her Christian parents … until she discovered in talking with them, they actually wanted to do both, pray and medicate and get all the expertise they could find engaged on the crisis. Along with that, the mom did an incredible amount of time walking their daughter through Bible passages that remind us that God promises His guiding presence into our identity, and how to access it. It’s not a one stop fix at all.