Religion, for many, is an integral part of their life. No matter which religious sect a person ascribes to, the act of being religious has been seen to have a significant impact on their mental health; for some, this impact is positive and helpful, but for others, it can be problematic. Some of the research involving religion and mental health has found that people who consider themselves religious are generally associated with overall better mental health than those who do not. Studies indicate that high levels of religious belief suggest less depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Another study showed that when being treated for anxiety or depression, the people who believed in God responded better to their treatment.
This is believed to be possibly due to the fact that seeking support in religious communities is a coping skill that helps a person feel more regulated and balanced. Being involved in a community of people who are focused on positive messages can help a person to feel better about their circumstances by way of community support. Another possible reason may be that believing in religion can instill in a person a sense of purpose and understanding about the positive and negative things that happen in their life, thus helping them to feel less hopeless than those who do not believe. Another study linked religion and prayer to the research on meditation and mindfulness techniques and garnered interesting results. They studied the brains of people who engaged in meditative prayer, like Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, and found that their brains had more activity in the frontal lobes, the area responsible for logical, rational thought and calming abilities. Research of general meditation and mindfulness found similar effects on the brains of people who frequently use meditation as a coping skill.
While there is a lot of research to suggest that religion and believing in God or a higher power can help a person’s mental health, there are some studies that have found the opposite as well. Studies have found that the message that a particular religion provides about the world and how a person should live can have a profound impact on their mental health. Religions that stress love, compassion, and radical acceptance of themselves and those around them tend to be linked to better mental health in their constituents, but those religions that center around hatred or violence towards the “others” who do not believe can have the opposite effect. The more negative the thoughts and feelings are about the world around them, the more negatively centered their thoughts and feelings will be, thus impacting their own mental health as a result.
Another sometimes problematic side to religious beliefs is how a religious person may perceive mental health struggles and whether or not they will seek help. While many studies indicate that people who are religious generally have less mental health struggles, this is definitely not the case for everyone, and when a person does begin to experience severe mental health concerns, their religious beliefs can impact their ability to address it and seek help either therapeutically or medically. Instead, they may attempt to seek support from their religious community and may avoid traditional mental health techniques that are considered necessary forms of treatment for severe mental illness. Psychiatric medication, for example, is something that some religions do not believe in and religious leaders may suggest that people avoid these types of interventions and instead turn to God and the support of their religious sect. While some people with less severe mental health issues may find this helpful, those who struggle with severe mental health issues or addiction may need medication support to stabilize.
When someone is struggling with mental health concerns, professionals welcome a person’s religious beliefs and participation, as the research does indicate that this can help a person heal, but the literature continues to confirm that a combined supportive environment and mental health treatment is the best form of treatment success. Seeking out a mental health professional who understands your religious beliefs and how to incorporate religion into a treatment plan is important when religion is a large part of a patient’s life. Mental health professionals are trained to understand the research related to religion and mental health and to accept and support their clients’ understanding of religion and how it is impacting them throughout treatment.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events