The role of faith, spirituality & religion

Spirituality and religion were important to many of the people we interviewed. We spoke to people of different faiths, including Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jewish, as well as people who did not see themselves as being any particular religion. Spirituality meant different things to different people, but many people shared beliefs in the existence of God or Allah. Some people who weren’t interested in organised religion had developed their own spiritual practices, including different forms of prayer or meditation. Only a few people said spirituality played no part in their life. 

Many people described a relationship between religion or spirituality and mental health. A few people who were Christian talked about their mental health as a ‘spiritual experience’.

And also the spirituality in mental health, that hasn’t been assessed. because I’m, I mean maybe I’m going to sound completely mad now but I could swear that, you know I’ you know, that, you know, some things that have happened to me, you know, I’ve either dreamed before or something like that. Do you know what I mean? I think I mean, you know, or, you know, and if you try and, try and tell the doctor that something spiritual as well as, I mean I always say as well as any insanity that I, as quite, I quite positively believe that I have experienced insanity in the true meaning of the word insanity. But in so saying, in the same breath I’ll also say that I truly believe what I experience has been a spiritual experience as well. I know I’ve experienced insanity, you can, I will admit to that but as much as that I also think I’ve had a spiritual experience as well. So, you know, I’d like that to be more, more looked into, more investigated, more investigation into that.

How spirituality helped with mental health issues
Most people we talked to felt spirituality helped with mental health problems in some way. Some found support, prayers and visits from their religious group helpful, especially when in hospital. Others found independent meditation helpful – even those who didn’t believe in prayer or God. (See ‘Complementary & alternative medicine for mental health problems’.) Some people said their belief in God or support from other members of their faith had helped them overcome suicidal thoughts. A few people said that, when they felt depressed, ‘at least God noticed’ and they were therefore not alone. Another woman thought she would get depressed if she didn’t have her spirituality. Several people were comforted by the idea of a loving and forgiving God who values each individual, whether or not they have mental health problems. Others felt their spirituality gave them courage, inspiration, strength and patience, including one woman who said her faith had helped her survive as a child in the care system. 

Several people, however, pointed out that religion on its own was not necessarily going to make you feel better. One man felt there was a limit to what advice he could give other people, as faith is such an individual matter. In another man’s view, prayer helped only if used with medication. 

Some people said their spirituality helped them to get through their problems or get better. One woman found prayer helped when she stopped drinking alcohol. A man diagnosed with schizophrenia said that joining a church helped him to stop doing alcohol and drug “cocktails” and that prayer helped with his sleeping problems. He also described how his spirituality enabled him to stop taking his medication and he had done so without informing his psychiatrist (patients should not stop medication without first consulting with a healthcare professional). After visiting Mecca and receiving a healing charm, one woman with depression began eating again and felt she was “suffering less”. Another Muslim woman also benefited from a blessing but expressed her fear of “black magic”.

Spirituality also acted as a “coping mechanism” by providing therapeutic “time out” for rebalancing, relaxation or distraction. Some said it gave them a reason to want to go on. One man described prayer as a way of avoiding “bottling things up”. A Christian man recommended meditation as something that can be done at any time, anywhere.

When spirituality doesn’t help
Some thought spirituality or religion sometimes didn’t help or could make things worse, depending on the particular church or the state of a person’s mental health. For example, one man felt bad because he wanted to acheive ‘moral perfection’ but couldn’t. Some said they needed practical help, but their church or temple didn’t help. Others said they received support and had felt welcome and accepted.

Some who found prayer helpful but said that nothing helped when they were very unwell. A woman diagnosed with psychotic depression described how Buddhism helped her to challenge her negative thinking and control her thoughts. She felt meditation helped her to avoid psychotic episodes, but said it was impossible to meditate when she was psychotic because the voices got in the way. Others found prayer unhelpful in general.

A few people talked about how they thought that religion had triggered mental health problems, “weird thoughts” or suicidal feelings (others found that spirituality helped to diminish suicidal feelings). Some mentioned that their interest in spirituality changed when unwell, including one man who described his spirituality as sometimes being more of a “hindrance”. [See Lorenz below]. A few people said their faith had been tested, including one woman who was in an abusive marriage. She said that feeling rejected by God triggered her depression. Another man said that the “curse” of depression made him feel as though “the hand of God was against me”.

Others talked about the way that mental health problems are seem by some as ‘possession’ by jinn, spirits or the devil. One 49 year old Indian Muslim [see Hanif above] and one 50 year old Afro-Caribbean Christian described how, in their early twenties, their psychosis was interpreted as possession.

Very few people described themselves as not being spiritual. One man said he had tried to, but didn’t believe in God and felt no connection with him. He couldn’t understand how spirituality could help his depression. Another woman who also didn’t believe in God described religion as “superstitious” and said she’d only tried prayer when she was “desperate”.

Mental health services and spiritual matters
Some people thought that spiritual matters were missing from mental health assessments and service provision – just one woman described having Christian counselling. Some people felt that if there was any provision for religious beliefs within services it was only for Christianity – a few saw this as further evidence of the dominance of a White western establishment. People also felt that religion is misjudged in mental health services. For example, one man thought that services see spirituality as evidence of mental ill health. He said that you can be intelligent and deeply religious. A few people felt they had experienced discrimination because of their faith. One man felt staff were more afraid he’d be violent because he expressed strong religious feeling. Others felt staff made assumptions about them because of their ethnicity; including one Asian man who was a Christian, but thought staff assumed he was Muslim.

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