By Dr Tasia Scrutton, University of Leeds
What has religion got to do with mental health and mental illness? One way of answering this question is to look at the ways in which different interpretations of mental illness influence people’s experiences of it. This is not only true of religious interpretations but also of other ones, including the more dominant medical interpretations of these experiences. A term such as ‘mental illness’ locates experiences historically responded to in non-medical ways firmly within the medical domain, hints that the experience is both similar (because an illness) and dissimilar (because mental) to experiences such as a broken leg, and suggests that the problems might be fixed by medical means. Being diagnosed as mentally ill is a relief for some people because it means that the way they were feeling and behaving is not part of who they really are (e.g. Solomon, 2002, 343). For others a medical diagnosis is devastating, partly because some medical diagnoses attract stigma and partly because mental diagnoses can present people as passive victims, not agents, and seem to diminish hope in the possibility of recovery or getting over the experience (Kvaale, Haslam and Gottdiener, 2013, 793).
Some religious interpretations adopt a medical interpretation while adding religious elements to supplement it in various ways (we will come to these in a minute). Others reject a medical interpretation and present a stark alternative. One of the anti-medical interpretations found in some Christian communities is that experiences such as depression and schizophrenia are the result of a sinful lifestyle or attitude towards the world. In part, this is because Christians regard joy as one of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ or results of Christian faith, and so experiences such as depression are seen as indicative of some kind of failure to live a full Christian life. As one Christian who has experienced depression and been at the receiving end of this view puts it:
When dealing with people in the church … some see mental illness as a weakness — a sign you don’t have enough faith. They said: ‘It’s a problem of the heart. You need to straighten things out with God.’ They make depression out to be a sin, because you don’t have the joy in your life a Christian is supposed to have. (Jessy Grondin, cited Camp, 2009)
These views are found not only in some Christian congregations, but even among some Christian psychologists and psychiatrists, and are a common theme in Christian depression self-help books (e.g. Minirth and Meier, 1994; Harcum, 2010). While they seek to provide a helpful alternative to the view that mental illness is a disease and the person a passive victim to it, they are deeply problematic because they exacerbate negative feelings such as guilt that are often already an aspect of the person’s psychological problems, and also because they encourage blame, avoidance and judgement on the part of church congregations who might otherwise provide support, and so increase the alienation of the person who is suffering (see Scrutton, forthcoming a; Scrutton, forthcoming b).
Interestingly, despite their differences, strongly medical interpretations have some things in common with the ones involving sin. One thing they have in common is that both regard the problem as being ‘within’ the individual, either as a disease or as a sin. As a result, the social problems that might have brought about or are perpetuating the mental illness risk being ignored, whether in favour of drug therapies or a different, more ‘Christian’, kind of lifestyle. Another similarity is that both regard the experience as wholly undesirable and negative. This seems an obvious point, but not all interpretations do this. One other Christian interpretation of the mental distress of some people (for example, of Mother Teresa), regards the experience as a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, as a sign of holiness or closeness to God (see Kolodiejchuk, 2008). Rather differently, members of Spiritualist and Spiritist religious traditions who regard their experiences of hearing voices not in terms of psychosis but, instead, as communicating with a benevolent spirit-guide are often not distressed or made less functional by their experiences, but, rather, regard it as a special gift that enables them to administer to others (Roxburgh and Roe, 2014; Scrutton, forthcoming c). If these experiences do not cause distress or an inability to function, there is no reason they should be regarded as illnesses or as relating to illnesses, and therefore some religious interpretations might have a ‘therapeutic’ function by rendering experiences that might in other contexts be or become ‘mental illnesses’ not illnesses or problems at all (see Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters, 2012; Scrutton, forthcoming d).
Another interpretation regards the experience in naturalistic, somewhat medical terms, but also as potentially transformative. For example, some people who have had depression report finding that they experience greater compassion, more insight into the suffering of others and a better sense of what to do about it, more self-awareness, and even a greater appreciation of beauty as a result of their experiences (Scrutton, forthcoming e; Scrutton, forthcoming f). While the mental distress is seen as in and of itself an undesirable thing, such views nevertheless point to positive things the experience gives rise to.
How is understanding different religious (and other) interpretations of mental illness practically relevant? One way is if medical professionals understand people’s religious beliefs about mental illness, they are in a better position to provide good care and treatment of them. As psychiatrist Harold Koenig puts it:
Knowing the impact that religious beliefs may have on the etiology, diagnosis, and outcome of psychiatric disorders will help psychiatrists better understand their patients, appreciate when religious or spiritual beliefs are used to cope with mental illness, and when they may be exacerbating that illness (Koenig, 2007, 5)
A medical professional who understands religious beliefs is in a better position to discern when a person’s beliefs are contributing to their mental distress by making them feel guilty about (to take a common example) being gay, or when religious ministers and congregations are likely to go some way to providing the support and the community a person with mental illness needs, or when medical treatment is inappropriate because the person’s religious interpretation is more likely to provide a meaningful and positive understanding of their experience. Understanding religious interpretations of mental illness may also be useful in challenging and/or supplementing medical understandings of these experiences. For example, might some religious traditions (religions and/or parts of religions) have resources for helping us to understand mental illness in more social and less individualistic terms? Or might they also supplement medical interpretations by indicating how the experiences could have some positive outcomes, and so by providing meaning to the experiences that medical interpretations often lack? These questions have yet to be fully explored, but the research and questions explored here is a start in this direction.
Dr Tasia Scrutton is an Associate Professor in Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include philosophy of religion, emotion and psychiatry, sometimes individually but often in combination. She is also interested in indigenous religions, and new religions and spiritualities such as Paganism. She would welcome enquiries from people interested in undertaking Masters or PhD research in a related area. The papers cited as forthcoming in the reference list below are all freely available on her academia.edu website (https://leeds.academia.edu/TasiaScrutton), and you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Camp, K. (2009) Through a glass darkly: Churches respond to mental illness. Available at http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3910&Itemid=53 [Accessed 26th November 2011]
Harcum, R. E. (2010) God’s prescription for your mental health: smile if you truly believe your religion. Maryland: Hamilton Press
Heriot-Maitland, C., Knight, M., and Peters, E. (2012). A qualitative comparison of psychotic-like phenomena in clinical and non-clinical populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology 51, 37 – 53
Koenig, H. G. 2007. Religion, spirituality and psychiatry: a new era in mental health care. Foreword in a special issue of Revista de Psiquiatria Clinica 34, Supl 1: 5 – 7. Available at http://www.scielo.br/pdf/rpc/v34s1/en_a02v34s1.pdf Accessed 22nd April 2016
Kolodiejchuk, B. ed. (2008). Mother Teresa: Come be my light. New York: Rider
Kvaale, E.P., Haslam, N., and Gottdiener, W.H. (2013) The ‘side effects’ of medicalization: A meta-analytical review of how biogenetic explanations affect stigma. Clinical Psychology Review 33, 782 – 794
Minirth, F, and P. Meier (1994) Happiness is a Choice: The Symptoms, Causes and Cures of Depression. Baker: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Roxburgh, E., and Roe, C. (2014). Reframing voices and visions using a spiritual model. An interpretative phenomenological analysis of anomalous experiences in mediumship. Mental Health, Religion and Culture 17.6, 641 – 653
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. (Forthcoming a). ‘Is depression a sin or a disease?’ A critique of moralising and medicalising models of mental illness. Journal of Religion and Disability.
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. (Forthcoming b). Is depression a sin? A philosophical consideration of Christian voluntarism. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. (Forthcoming c). Can jinn be a tonic? The therapeutic value of spirit-related beliefs, practices and experiences. Filosofia Unisinos
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. (Forthcoming d). Can being told you’re ill make you ill? A discussion of psychiatry, religion, and out of the ordinary experiences. Think: Philosophy for Everyone
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. (Forthcoming e). Two Christian theologies of depression. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. (Forthcoming f). What could it mean to live well with depression? Journal of Religion and Disability
Solomon, A. 2002. The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression. London: Vintage Books