Please forgive me for that awful headline. If you can, it might improve your mental health. Here’s the real title of this article:
Does Religion Help or Hinder Mental Health?
According to two articles that showed up in my news feed last week, it depends on whether it’s good religion or bad religion. (That headline, for instance, might have cost us both a few points on the sanity scale.)
The first article describes disastrous consequences of a movement called “biblical counseling” that rejects psychotherapy and psychotropic medication in favor of counselors giving clients (or parishioners) strong moral admonitions drawn from the Bible. The second article summarizes a study that demonstrated a strong correlation between forgiveness and mental health.
For those of us who evaluate a course of therapy based on results, the “biblical counseling” that rejects both medication and psychotherapy fails miserably. The worst examples include programs to “pray away the gay,” and biblical counselors who admonish women to obey their husbands more completely in order to avoid getting physically and emotionally abused. Using the Bible as a weapon against scientific facts and the autonomy of women puts the one who wields it on the side of destruction.
At the same time, psychotherapy without values can also become destructive.
For instance, a company noticed that its sales managers, required to travel away from their families frequently and work long hours when they are not traveling, showed the expected symptoms of frequently absent fathers or mothers: an increase in the divorce rate, an increase in their children’s physical and mental illness, and several suicides among the children of these sales managers.
What did the company do to address the problem? Instead of reviewing the systemic causes that led to these requirements they had placed on their sales team, they hired a psychotherapist to treat their employees’ “adjustment disorders” so they could get back out there and function at a higher level in the rough and tumble of corporate life. Psychotherapy provides many tools that might help people do this. There is an ethical question, however: is helping clients adjust to a soulless existence really a legitimate goal for psychotherapy? While one might argue that taking on this project violated the ethical boundaries of the American Psychologists Association’s code of ethics, the financial incentives tend to push against this boundary. (The therapist who told me this story had declined this client’s request because it violated her Christian values, not the APA’s code of ethics. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” she said.)
The fact is that most ministers who offer their parishioners pastoral care also encourage them to get medical treatment and/or psychotherapy for mental and/or emotional problems. Many Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations and synagogues include psychotherapists in their membership. On several occasions, new people showed up at congregations I served because their psychotherapists encouraged them to connect or reconnect with a community of faith. The either/or polarization of our society that pits psychotherapy against religion and vice versa makes compelling news stories, but it does not reflect the relationship between religion and psychotherapy for most people.
Psychotherapy and psychiatry have mastered symptom relief. Therapists realize, however, that if a client wants to live a life of meaning, something more than symptom relief is needed. Living a life of meaning means exploring purpose, ultimate values, and one’s deepest convictions. In other words, faith.
The study referenced above states that “To the extent that forgiveness training can promote a more forgiving coping style, then these interventions may help reduce stress-related disease and improve human health. Such interventions may be particularly beneficial when delivered as a prevention strategy in early life, before individuals are exposed to major adulthood life stressors.”
For those of us in the forgiveness business, the obvious question is what these “interventions” might look like. Forgiveness is so challenging and complex that churches and other communities of faith spend untold emotional and spiritual resources trying to learn, teach and practice this value, and still often fail. The successes we see, however, come from years of spiritual formation through the difficult practice of living in a community with people we love but don’t always like. (Our congregation is just like a family!) It is hard to imagine how one would learn forgiveness beyond the basics within the purely professional relationship of therapist and client.