Understanding the Role Religion and Spirituality Play on Mental Health

Understanding the Role Religion and Spirituality Play on Mental Health

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By Lauren Olaiz, MPH,
Community mental health relations coordinator at El Camino Hospital

Our spirituality and religious beliefs begin to develop in childhood and continue to evolve throughout life. They can help guide our decision making and impact many cultural and social aspects of life. Most importantly, our beliefs can also have a profound influence on mental health and well-being.

Spirituality and religion often provide a sense of security and social structure and those beliefs can be a strong coping mechanism through trying times. Being an active member of a close-knit religious community can provide structure, support and sense of acceptance, all of which are beneficial to mental health.

The connectedness of a group can make people feel welcomed and valued. There are also certain life circumstances or situations that can challenge faith connections and beliefs. This can include chronic illness, loss of a loved one, or even feelings of rejection during times of change. It’s during these trying times that individuals may look outside of their faith group or to trusted spiritual leaders for guidance on how to navigate the situation and maintain mental well-being.

In fact, in times of crisis, many will turn to trusted religious leaders in their communities before they turn to mental health professionals. It is important to know that there are professionals in the mental health field who ask about their patient’s personal beliefs and will discuss how to use that information to support well-being. Choosing a mental health professional who is committed to learning about a patient’s beliefs is not only a sign of a provider with an understanding of cultural competence but an indication that the provider understands that each of us has a unique source of strength and resilience that can be fostered. Some people specifically look for a professional of the same religious background.

Faith and spiritual leaders are a crucial resource for their community to provide mental health education, increase awareness of mental health conditions and to provide support in connecting congregation members to resources in the community for help. Possessing the skills, knowing the resources and creating an ethical framework for advocating for individuals and families affected by mental health conditions are key for playing a pivotal role in improving the overall mental health of the community.

The Diocese of San Jose is co-hosting a conference titled, “Journeying Together: Faith, Spirituality & Mental Health” on Wednesday, May 20 from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at Santa Clara University to provide support to end the discrimination of mental health conditions and silence in faith communities. A variety of speakers will be present to discuss mental health topics of interest and will share information on how to educate and advocate for your community. Register online at www.dsj.org/SMH.