This week, we are support Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, whose theme this year is ‘Find your brave’.  Amelia Evans looks at whether having a faith leads to better mental health.

 

There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that suggests that this is the case. Whatever one's religious beliefs, acknowledging the spiritual side of your nature appears to have strong positive implications for both your physical and mental health. There is a great deal of evidence that faith can improve mental health and reduce stress levels. There is also quantitative evidence that people recover more quickly, and feel happier about their medical treatment, if they have received spiritual support from a hospital chaplain. Spirituality and religion are also considered to be helpful in the support of people suffering from PTSD, of debilitating diseases such as cancer, and for depression.

So, it seems that faith is a route to better mental health and reduced levels of stress. Why should this be so? One obvious reason is that if you are a person of faith, you are likely to be part of a faith community. You meet with other like-minded people once or twice a week, you have people to talk to, and who will keep an eye out for you or even support you when things go wrong. You may also be involved in charitable work and outreach, and being able to help others is a great de-stressor. If you have a purpose in life, your mental health is likely to be good.

It’s also likely that as a believer, you will be less inclined to indulge in self-destructive behaviors which can lead to mental health problems or stress. For example, you are less likely to drink or smoke to excess, take recreational drugs, gamble, have extramarital affairs or to take part in criminal activity. All of these are potential enemies of good mental health.

Traditionally, mental health practitioners have tiptoed around the role of spirituality in a person’s life, in some cases deeming it to be a form of mental illness in itself. (As did Sigmund Freud) However, as Laura Mancuso of the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative points out, “Spirituality is an untapped resource for recovery from serious mental health issues.” But now increasingly, therapists and mental health practitioners work with a person's own beliefs to help in their treatment.

Spiritual beliefs can help us answer the great existential questions with which we are all faced. Questions like, “Why me?” “What am I here for?” “Where am I heading?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Having a belief system which at least attempts to offer answers to these questions can give a person a lifeline when things are difficult. With no belief system, the individual can be faced with a feeling of meaninglessness, or hopelessness.

Although the Christian and Muslim faiths give hope for a life in the hereafter, other faith systems take other approaches. Hindus hope for reincarnation as something better. Buddhists look for enlightenment. Pagans believe that they are one with the earth. Each religion offers meaning and consolation to its believers.

Christian faith is able to interpret suffering in many ways. In the worst case, it can be damaging, presented as a punishment from God; this of course is not conducive to good mental health. In the best case, people are able to accept suffering as a way to draw closer to God, and deepen their faith, after all, Christians worship a suffering God.

Like many Christians, when I suffer from my own trials and tribulations, I take comfort in the words which Jesus is reported as saying the most often; “Don’t be afraid”.

 

Pray for children and young people with mental health conditions:

  • That they will not feel isolated or alone but find the support that they need.
  • That stress levels will be reduced and bravery to talk about their issues.
  • For God to bring healing of mind, body and soul and surround them with His peace.