Linking Spirituality with Mental Health

Sep 10, 2012

At some point in their lives, the World Health Organization says more than a third of people report some kind of mental disorder.  The care and treatment of a mental illness includes the use of ever improving medications and intense counseling.  Some counselors believe ‘spirituality’ can impact mental health.

There is evidence religion can help some people suffering mental illness.  Jesse Wright directs the Depression Center at the University of Louisville.   For example, Wright says there’s less suicide among people who regularly attend religious services.

“There’s a fair amount of research that’s been done on spirituality as a protectant against various kinds of psychiatric symptoms or problems, particularly depression,” said Wright.

Likewise, Wright says mental illness can prompt some people to lose their faith, asking themselves ‘Is God mad at me?’ 

In Prestonsburg, in far eastern Kentucky, Gwen Hall is a licensed clinical social worker with Catholic Charities of Lexington.  Hall has counseled patients since 1975.  She believes spirituality and mental health are related.  Hall says a belief in God can result in feelings of love and that can impact thinking.  In other words, when a patients believe they’re feeling God’s love, there are mental and physical benefits.

“What’s fascinating about the new brain research is they can even follow that is people’s brain scans.  There are actual changes in the brain from love,” said Hall.

Hall treats patients who, she says, have shutdown and feel no emotions.   And, during treatment, she’s heard a few tell her, ‘I hate how you’ve made me feel.  I used to be numb all the time.  Now I feel pain. I feel hurt. I feel embarrassed.’ 

Others, she says, suffer from an overwhelming sense of guilt.  In seeking forgiveness, they often seek divine retribution.

“Even I deserve to be punished, or I do need to be incarcerated.  I do need to have medication.  I need to go to therapy because obviously I can’t keep behaving like this and I’m a danger right now to myself or somebody else,” added Hall.

After mass killings, like the ones in Aurora, Colorado, Oak Creek, Wisconsin and, Virginia Tech, the killer’s mental state is scrutinized.  People wonder, were there any warning signs.  But, spotting a potential killer is difficult.

Psychologist Geraldo Lima has spent 20 years counseling inmates at the Federal Correctional facility in Lexington.   Lima says it’s almost impossible to predict with any assurance how someone might act.

“It’s hard to say in absolute terms that someone is more prone to violence.  Someone is more prone to violence now and perhaps less prone to violence later.  Given certain conditions, that prone to violence can change,” said Lima.

After years of counseling inmates, Lima says the topic of ‘spirituality’ rarely surface.  And, he doesn’t see religion as defusing violent tendencies.

“I don’t see necessarily that spirituality would act as a mediating variable in the expression of violence, I don’t,” said Lima.

Lima adds ‘one cannot inflict rehabilitation.  Rehabilitation is something that somebody chooses.’

Still, Louisville psychiatrist Jesse Wright believes faith can play a role in stopping an angry person before any harm is done.

“Certainly having spiritual beliefs and having an experience in being raised in an environment in which spiritual values are held I high respect can interfere with acting out on those impulses,” said Wright.

Eastern Kentucky social worker Gwen Hall agrees, saying she’s seen individuals with a spiritual foundation stop short of violence.  Hall believes one of the biggest social problems in society is an unwillingness to listen.  She says listening is probably the most important thing she does.

“People who develop a prayer life, regardless of their religious tradition, a prayer life that is real with God that they have that sense that God is listening, even when the rest of the world doesn’t want to.  God gets it.  God understands,” said Hall.

Hall says listening in itself can be considered a form of healing.  Hall, along with Wright and Lima, agree counseling and medication are key in the treatment of mentally ill patients.    As Lima says, ‘all together, spirituality-medications, and counseling make for a better picture. But he advises patients not to pick one over the other.