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Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health

Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health
5 votes

When faith helps

Most of the time, people can heal and find peace and self-acceptance through faith. All the world’s great faiths, those that have lasted centuries, are kept alive for this reason. All have common themes of healing and service to others. When things go poorly, meditation and prayer, with others or in private, lead to connection and wholeness. Faith reveals that things are better, and will be better, than they seem.

When families are in crisis because of their troubled child, parents tell me they depend on faith, even parents who don’t profess a faith practice. They say it’s their only source of strength. Most families with a child who is sick, disabled, or mentally ill will go through dark times, when a parent’s world is simply too overwhelming. Most often, no answers are forthcoming, nor any rescue. The only choice is to hand over their burden to a “higher power,” God, the Buddha, Allah, the Great Spirit… This act of “handing over” is a foundation of healing in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

Few things help a family more than a supportive community of believers.  There will be one person who listens to a frightened parent on the phone, and another person who takes a traumatized sibling on an outing, and another person who provides hugs and cookies. If a mentally ill child continues to decline, a good faith-based support network will stay on. The child may not thrive, but the family does, and has the strength and forbearance to handle the years’ long task of supporting their mentally ill loved one.

Science shows that faith results in better lifetime outcomes for a child

This writer typically trusts science, but in the depths of my family’s despair, only faith and the prayers of others kept me from falling apart.

There are scientists among the faithful who have asked the question: does faith really help the mentally ill? In another blog post, Spirituality and mental health, some research are summaries of research going back 36 years.  (Follow this link for the research citations.)  The answer?  Yes, faith makes a real and measurable difference in improving mental health.

More recent scientific research shows clear evidence from brain scans that meditation and prayer change brain electrical activity, from anxious or agitated to serene and grounded.  The person actually feels and behaves better.  This article has more information on this, Yoga – Safe and effective for depression and anxiety.

Like prayer, “talk therapy” or psychotherapy also shows improvement on brain scans. Imagine, just talking with someone improves the physical brain. According to the article appended below, “When God Is Part of Therapy,” many prefer therapists who respect and encourage their faith. It just makes sense.

When faith harms

This section is a personal appeal to faith communities who have unconscionably failed families and their children with mental disorders.

Faith communities depend on people, and people have biases and foibles.  Many of ‘the faithful’ hold negative beliefs about others, right or wrong.  Children who suffer, and their families, are identified as possessed, of evil character, disbelievers, victims of abuse, or cruelest:  those who are paying for their sins. Families are repeatedly told these very things today.

“Sometimes, people hide from the Bible. That is, they use the Christian holy book as an authority and excuse for biases that have nothing to do with God.”
–Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald

Stigmatization from a faith community is a cruel betrayal.

A child’s inappropriate behavior is not a choice, it is a verifiable medical illness, one with a higher mortality rate than cancer:  Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.  (A graph comparing mortality rates of cancers and mental disorders is at this link.). Families with sick children need support. From my personal experience, and from parents in my support groups over the past 13 years, our sense of loss is devastating.

Testimonials

Mother with five children, one with bipolar disorder:

“We were members of our church since we were first married, all our daughters grew up here, but when my youngest spiraled down, I was told the sins of the father are visited on the sons. Or we weren’t praying enough. I knew they thought (Dad) had done something bad to her. We left and went church shopping until we found a pastor who understood and supported us.”

Mother of two children, one with acute pervasive development disorder:

“I wish we had a “special needs” church. We’re so afraid our kid is going to say something and we’re not going to be accepted. We haven’t gone to church for years because of this. They just turned their backs on us, it happened to another family with a deaf child. They avoid parents in pain. Deep down in my heart I believe in the Lord, but there are days when I wonder “where is God?” People call out to pray for a job, or a kid’s grades, but we wouldn’t dare ask for us, no one would get it, we’d be told we were bad parents or didn’t punish him enough.”

Mother of two children, one with schizoaffective disorder:

“When I went up to the front to light a candle and ask for a prayer for my daughter, I expected people would come up afterward and give a hug or something, just like with other families with cancer and such. But it didn’t happen. No one even looked at me. I left alone and decided never to go back.”

Some good news

FaithNet

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has recognized the need for the mentally ill to be part of faith communities, and the negative experiences most face when they attempt to participate in a religious community. NAMI started FaithNet to encourage and equip NAMI members to engage with and share their story and NAMI resources with local faith groups, and appeal for their acceptance.

Key Ministry

Key Ministry: Welcoming Youth and Their Families at Church
Stephen Grcevich, M.D., president, Key Ministry and child & adolescent psychiatry in private practice, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

“Key Ministry believes it is not okay for youth living with mental illness and their families to face barriers to participation in worship services, educational programming and service opportunities available through local churches.”

Churches in American culture lack understanding of the causes and the needs of families impacted by mental illness, which poses a significant barrier to full inclusion.

“A study published recently by investigators at Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations. The presence of mental illness in a family member has a significant negative impact on both church attendance and the frequency of engagement in spiritual practices.” When asked what help the church could offer these families, they ranked “support for mental illness” 2nd out of 47 possibilities. Among unaffected families, support for mental illness ranked 42nd.

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When God Is Part of Therapy
Tara Parker Pope, March 2011, New York Times

Faith-based therapy is growing in popularity, reports Psychology Today, as more patients look for counselors who can discuss their problems and goals from a religious frame of reference.

Studies show that people prefer counselors who share their religious beliefs and support, rather than challenge, their faith. Religious people often complain that secular therapists see their faith as a problem or a symptom, rather than as a conviction to be respected and incorporated into the therapeutic dialogue, a concern that is especially pronounced among the elderly and twenty-somethings. According to a nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), 83 percent of Americans believe their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health. Three-fourths say it’s important for them to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.

The problem for many patients in therapy is that many patients are far more religious than their therapists.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same. The majority of traditional counselor training programs have no courses dealing with spiritual matters.

When children are hospitalized with other ailments, the family draws sympathy and support from others.  But because of mental health stigma, most families like ours don’t when our child is hospitalized.  If not blame, we are second-guessed, or as bad, met with silence or a change of subject.

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Spirituality and mental health, some research

Spirituality and mental health, some research
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Scientists worldwide have been studying the effect of religion and spirituality on mental health and addiction recovery in children, teens, and adults.  Below are research findings that show religion and spirituality improve adult and adolescent mental health, including recovery from mental crises and substance abuse, when the spiritual approach carries messages of love, kindness, tolerance, and moral responsibility.  But when religion had a punitive or unforgiving message to those with mental or substance abuse disorders, the results were disheartening: a worsening of psychotic symptoms; inability to sustain recovery from substance abuse; and physical abuse.

If you look at the dates of some of these studies, you’ll see that researchers have been measuring of the value of spirituality for mental health and addiction for ~30 years, and results have consistently shown positive benefits which are statistically significant.  It’s hard core research–dense reading–so key findings and conclusions are in red in case you don’t want to scan through lengthy writing and jargon.

Enjoy,  Margaret

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God Imagery and Treatment Outcomes Examined
Currier JM, Foster JD, Abernathy AD, et al. God imagery and affective outcomes in a spiritually integrative inpatient program. [Published online ahead of print May 5, 2017]. Psychiatry Res. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.05.003.

Patients’ ability to derive comfort from their religious faith and/or spirituality emerged as a salient mediating pathway between their God imagery at the start of treatment and positive affect at discharge, a recent study found. Drawing on a combination of qualitative and quantitative information with a religiously heterogeneous sample of 241 adults who completed a spiritually-integrative inpatient program over a 2-year period, researchers tested direct and indirect associations between imagery of how God views oneself, religious comforts and strains, and affective outcomes.

FINDINGS

When accounting for patients’ demographic and religious backgrounds, structural equation modeling results revealed:
(1) overall effects for God imagery at pre-treatment on post-treatment levels of both positive and negative affect;
(2) religious comforts and strains fully mediated these links.

Secondary analyses also revealed that patients generally experienced reductions in negative emotion in God imagery over the course of their admissions.

“[Spirituality] enables neurotic conflicts typical for adolescence to be more easily overcome.”

The influence of religious moral beliefs on adolescents’ mental stability.
Pajević I, Hasanović M, Delić A., : Psychiatry Danub. 2007 Sep;19(3):173-83

University Clinical Centre Tuzla, Trnovac b.b, 75 000 Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina. zikjri@bih.net.ba.
This study included 240 mentally and physically healthy male and female adolescents attending a high school, who were divided into groups equalized by gender (male and female), age (younger 15, older 18 years); school achievement (very good, average student); behaviour (excellent, average); family structure (complete family with satisfactory family relations), and level of exposure to psycho-social stress (they were not exposed to specific traumatizing events).  Subjects were assessed with regard to the level of belief in some basic ethical principles that arise from religious moral values.

CONCLUSIONS: A higher index of religious moral beliefs in adolescents enables better control of impulses, providing better mental health stability.  It enables neurotic conflicts typical for adolescence to be more easily overcome.  It also causes healthier reactions to external stimuli.  A higher index of religious moral beliefs of young people provides a healthier and more efficient mechanism of anger control and aggression control.  It enables transformation of that psychical energy into neutral energy which supports the growth and development of personality, which is expressed through socially acceptable behaviour.  In this way, it helps growth, development and socialization of the personality, leading to the improvement in mental health.

Religion, Stress, and Mental Health in Adolescence: Findings from Add Health

Nooney, J. G. 2008-10-23 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p106431_index.html

 A growing body of multidisciplinary research documents the associations between religious involvement and mental health outcomes, yet the causal mechanisms linking them are not well understood.  Ellison and his colleagues (2001) tested the life stress paradigm linking religious involvement to adult well-being and distress.  This study looked at adolescents, a particularly understudied group in religious research.  Analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) reveals that religious effects on adolescent mental health are complex.  While religious involvement did not appear to prevent the occurrence of stressors or buffer their impact, some support was found for the hypothesis that religion facilitates coping by enhancing social and psychological resources.

 

Study Links Religion and Mental Health

David H. Rosmarin and Kenneth Pargament, Bowling Green State University, Ohio

(IsraelNN.com) 2008

A series of research studies – known as the JPSYCH program – reveals that traditional religious beliefs and practices are protective against anxiety and depression among Jews.  The research indicates that frequency of prayer, synagogue attendance, and religious study, and positive beliefs about the Divine are associated with markedly decreased levels of anxiety and with higher levels of happiness.  “In this day and age, there is a lot to worry about,” Rosmarin notes, “and the practice of religion may help people to maintain equanimity and perspective.”

 

The Once-Forgotten Factor in Psychiatry: Research Findings on Religious Commitment and Mental Health (excerpt)

David B. Larson, M.D., M.S.P.H., Susan S. Larson, M.A.T., and Harold G. Koenig, M.D., M.H.Sc.

Psychiatric Times.  Vol. 17 No. 10, October 1, 2000

 

“The data from many of the studies conducted to date are both sufficiently robust and tantalizing to warrant continued and expanded clinical investigations.”

 

Treatment of Drug Abuse

  • The lack of religious/spiritual commitment stands out as a risk factor for drug abuse, according to past reviews of published studies.  Benson (1992) reviewed nearly 40 studies documenting that people with stronger religious commitment are less likely to become involved in substance abuse.
  • Gorsuch and Butler (1976) found that lack of religious commitment was a predictor of drug abuse.  The researchers wrote:  “Whenever religion is used in analysis, it predicts those who have not used an illicit drug regardless of whether the religious variable is defined in terms of membership, active participation, religious upbringing or the meaningfulness of religion as viewed by the person himself.”
  • Lorch and Hughes (1985), as cited by the National Institute for Healthcare Research (1999), surveyed almost 14,000 youths and found that the analysis of six measures of religious commitment and eight measures of substance abuse revealed religious commitment was linked with less drug abuse.  The measure of “importance of religion” was the best predictor in indicating lack of substance abuse.  The authors stated, “This implies that the controls operating here are deeply internalized values and norms rather than fear or peer pressure.”
  • Developing and drawing upon spiritual resources can also make a difference in improving drug treatment.  For instance, 45% of participants in a religious treatment program for opium addiction were still drug-free one year later, compared to only 5% of participants in a nonreligious public health service hospital treatment program-a nine-fold difference(Desmond and Maddux, 1981).
  • Confirming other studies showing reduced depression and substance abuse, a study of 1,900 female twins found significantly lower rates of major depression, smoking and alcohol abuse among those who were more religious (Kendler et al., 1997).  Since these twins had similar genetic makeup, the potential effects of nurture versus nature stood out more clearly.

“lack of religious commitment was a predictor of drug abuse”

Treatment of Alcohol Abuse

  • Religious/spiritual commitment predicts fewer problems with alcohol (Hardesty and Kirby, 1995).  People lacking a strong religious commitment are more at risk to abuse alcohol (Gartner et al., 1991).  Religious involvement tends to be low among people diagnosed for substance abuse treatment (Brizer, 1993).
  • A study of the religious lives of alcoholics found that 89% of alcoholics had lost interest in religion during their teen-age years, whereas 48% among the community control group had increased interest in religion, and 32% had remained unchanged (Larson and Wilson, 1980).
  • A relationship between religious or spiritual commitment and the non-use or moderate use of alcohol has been documented.  Amoateng and Bahr (1986) reported that, whether or not a religious tradition specifically proscribes alcohol use,those who are active in a religious group consumed substantially less alcohol than those who are not active.
  • Religion or spirituality is also often a strong force in recovery.  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) invokes a Higher Power to help alcoholics recover from addiction.  Those who participate in AA are more likely to remain abstinent after inpatient or outpatient treatment(Montgomery et al., 1995).

“…adolescents [who were] frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck Depression Inventory.”

Suicide Prevention – Surging suicide rates plague the United States, especially among adolescents.  One in seven deaths among those 15 to 19 years of age results from suicide.

  • One study of 525 adolescents found that religious commitment significantly reduced risk of suicide(Stein et al., 1992).
  • A study of adolescents found that frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck Depression Inventory(Wright et al., 1993).  High school students of either gender who attended church infrequently and had low spiritual support had the highest rates of depression, often at clinically significant levels.
  • How significantly might religious commitment prevent suicide?  One early large-scale study found that people who did not attend church were four times more likely to kill themselves than were frequent church-goers (Comstock and Partridge, 1972).  Stack (1983) found rates of church attendance predicted suicide rates more effectively than any other evaluated factor, including unemployment.  He proposed several ways in which religion might help prevent suicide, including enhancing self-esteem through a belief that one is loved by God and improving moral accountability, which reduces the appeal of potentially self-destructive behavior.
  • Many psychiatric inpatients indicate that spiritual/religious beliefs and practices help them to cope. Lindgren and Coursey (1995) reported 83% of psychiatric patients felt that spiritual belief had a positive impact on their illness through the comfort it provided and the feelings of being cared for and not being alone it engendered.

Potential Harmful Effects – Psychiatry still needs more research and clearer hypotheses in differentiating between the supportive use of religion/spirituality in finding hope, meaning, and a sense of being valued and loved versus harmful beliefs that may manipulate or condemn.”

 

Read my article “Faith can help, & harm, a family’s mental health,” for potential harmful effects on families. –Margaret

  • Alcoholics often report negative experiences with religion and hold concepts of God that are punitive, rather than loving and forgiving(Gorsuch, 1993).
  • Bowman (1989).  In assessing multiple personality disorder, children in rigid religious families, whose harsh parenting practices border on abuse, harbor negative images of God.  Josephson (1993),Individual psychopathology is linked with families whose enmeshment, rigidity and emotional harshness were supported by enlisting spiritual precepts.
  • Sheehan and Kroll (1990).  Of 52 seriously mentally ill hospitalized patients diagnosed with major depression, schizophrenia, manic episode, personality disorder and anxiety disorder, almost one-fourth of them believed their sinful thoughts or acts may have contributed to the development of their illness.  Without the psychiatrist inquiring about potential religious concerns, these beliefs would remain unaddressed, potentially hindering treatment until discovered and resolved.  Collaboration with hospital chaplains or clergy may help in some of these instances of spiritual problems or distress.

Conclusion

Religious/spiritual commitment may enhance recovery from depression, serious mental or physical illness, and substance abuse; help curtail suicide; and reduce health risks.  More longitudinal research with better multidimensional measures will help further clarify the roles of these factors and whether they are beneficial or harmful.

–Margaret

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