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Why Mental Health, Religion, and Spirituality Go Hand-in-Hand
The World Health Organizations (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” When that is thrown off balance, some people are able to use religious or spiritual beliefs to cope with stress.
Defining Religion and Spirituality
To be religious usually involves believing in some type of higher deity and have dogmas that are to be followed (i.e., “Don’t drink or do drugs,” “Don’t have pre-marital sex,” “Pray to OUR God,” “Attend church or synagogue , etc.” ). Religious people tend to focus on their faith and beliefs, usually having standards of practice such as praying, reading scripture, and perhaps attending study groups. Religion is typically an institutional practice with adherents that have a faith-based practice, although faith can be at varying levels of belief.
On the other hand, spirituality is more difficult to define as it has a broader meaning. Common themes of spirituality include: a belief in some type of higher essence; feeling deeply connected to one’s own higher self, to others, to nature, and to the earth and cosmos; a sense of purpose or meaning; using spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, prayer, seeking time alone or in nature; feeling sensations of peace and joy; connecting with the awe that surrounds us; creativity; and relating on both an immanent (here and now) and transcendent level (connecting to the mystical).
In the end, people can be religious and not spiritual, spiritual and not religious, both religious and spiritual, or unaffiliated to any belief, faith or practice. Those who do not affiliate with any type of practice can also be their highest selves by demonstrating love, compassion, and acceptance.
The Intersection of Mental Health, Religion and Spirituality
Studies show a variety of ways that religion and spirituality can provide solace and positively affect mental health. Together or on their own, they foster goodness and health in one’s interactions with others and themselves, making it well-supported by health practitioners such as social workers and counselors.
Here are a few of the many reasons why being religious and/or being in touch with your spiritual self can help mental health:
- You get a place to discuss your beliefs
- Brings positive mood states
- Decreases depression
- Increases happiness
- Decreases suicide attempts
- Decreases drug and alcohol use
- Decreases delinquency
- Increases self esteem
- Increases optimism and hope
- Better coping with life stressors
- Increases forgiveness, love, compassion, gratitude, humility
- Increases human potential
- Reduces anxiety
- Longer life span
- Helps in times of trouble
- Increases mastery of life
- Health promoting effect (physical health)
Mental health and having a religious and/or spiritual belief can help improve one’s well-being and overall satisfaction with life, thereby protecting against mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and many more.
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, has over 30 years of experience as a clinical social worker, program developer, clinical director, and adjunct professor. She specializes in mental health, substance abuse, trauma, grief, LGBT and women’s issues, chronic pain, and spiritual counseling. Dr. Anderson is the author of Where All Our Journeys End: Searching for the Beloved in Everyday Life (C. Lynn Anderson) which has been praised for its depth of study and beauty of prose and poetry.