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Faith Exchange

How faith grapples with mental health - and stigma Add to ...

Our mental health is influenced by myriad factors – social, biological, environmental and psychological, to name a few – and can then influence how we affect and our affected by others. High stress can play havoc with blood pressure, ability to sleep, parenting, interpersonal relations, and, in the most unfortunate cases, can lead to depression or suicide.

Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss faith’s response to mental health. Readers, if you choose to join the commentary, please do so with respect.


Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multi-faith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.

Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal .

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman .

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Context with Lorna Dueck , on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time, and Vision TV, 9:30 a.m.

Moderator Chris Hannay is an online editor in The Globe and Mail’s news section. He might be agnostic.


Chris Hannay: Welcome, panel. While counselling and proper medical attention are key to keeping up mental health, what role can faith play in keeping us well?

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: From a Hindu perspective, faith is an important part of dealing with stress in our lives. Although medical help is essential, ultimately faith takes over and Hindus believe that faith is the ultimate source of comfort and strength in dealing with many challenges in life.

Lorna Dueck: Understanding our spiritual life as part of our response to mental health is important. Hope and love are the two responses that faith brings to both keeping us healthy. Those qualities are many layered, and to be applied in all health needs including mental health. I love what Jean Vanier says about this, “Wounded people ...ask for only one thing: a heart that loves and commits itself to them, a heart full of hope.”

Howard Voss-Altman: In my pastoral work, I have found that people struggling with mental health issues often feel ashamed and are reluctant to embrace or affiliate with a religious community. Our goal, as clergy, is to create the kind of compassionate community where people feel welcomed and included, especially when they are struggling. Our communities should be an example of how to welcome the stranger. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it must be a priority – starting with the clergy.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: In response to Howard’s statement, I will say that many Hindus who struggle with mental health seek solace and comfort through religion, though not an intermediary like a priest, always.

Sheema Khan: Faith in the divine can help to alleviate stress, in many ways. In the Koran we are constantly reminded of a compassionate, merciful creator, who is closer to each individual, than anything or anyone else. That is, without any intermediary, one can always call upon God. This can help to alleviate personal isolation. Also, one key aspect of faith is hope – the view that things will get better, or as the Koran states, “With difficulty, comes ease.” And, we are reminded that life is a gift, from God. Furthermore, faith, combined with community, can also provide valuable resources to help individuals cope, as community relations should help to build a reservoir of empathy and compassion.

In a video for the song “A Land Called Paradise”, featuring American Muslim country and western singer Kareem Salama, a sample of messages by American Muslims are shown. One powerful clip shows a young man, with a gun, who then holds up a sign saying “Islam inhibits my suicidal thoughts.”

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