Navigating My Relationship with Religion While Living with Mental Illness

JUL. 23, 2021

By Katherine Ponte, BA, JD, MBA, CPRP

person praying

I was born and raised in a deeply Catholic home. Accordingly, my cultural upbringing was inseparable from my religion; I went to church every Sunday and actively engaged with my faith community. As I grew up, my participation in religious activities waned, but I always had faith in God.

However, when I began struggling with severe mental illness, I started challenging my faith. I believed that God was angry and punishing me. This uncertainty compounded my pain and fear. How could I get better if He did not love me?

Religion even appeared in the thick of my struggles; during my severe psychotic manic episodes, I experienced hyper-religiosity. In some instances, I believed that God had chosen me as a messenger. After the mania subsided, I found myself angry that God would “lead me” to believe this.

Amid my mental health struggles and tenuous relationship with God, my self-love, self-esteem and self-worth plummeted. However, I found hope during my last hospitalization when I learned about the possibility of recovery. This renewed sense of possibility encouraged me to view my life — and my relationship with God — more optimistically.

My breakthrough was buoyed by my chance encounter with a Catholic nun, which I viewed as a “sign” from God. Through writings and teachings, she convinced me that God did, in fact, love me — that my struggles were part of his greater plan for me, which would make me a better person. I began to pray to Saint Dymphna, the Catholic patron saint of mental illness. It gave me strength and comfort, especially during times of self-doubt and uncertainty.

Ultimately, religion is a highly personal matter, and no two faith experiences are identical. But all experiences are valid and worthy of consideration in mental health treatment. And despite the challenges I faced, I believe religion has the potential to be a source of strength if approached in the right way.

 

The Mental Health Benefits of Religion

There is no shortage of articles highlighting benefits of religion on mental health. Some benefits include helping people to:

  • Find greater meaning in life
  • Promote personal growth
  • Better tolerate stresses of uncertainties
  • Experience reduced rates of suicide and suicidal ideation
  • Develop faith-based coping strategies (e.g., prayer)
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Enhance social support

Religious texts have also proven to provide helpful teachings espousing importance of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.

An extensive review of the existing academic literature found that 60% of people report faster reduction of depression symptoms in more religious people. Religious beliefs have also been shown to be positively associated with coping, treatment engagement and help-seeking behavior for people with schizophrenia. Some studies have found that people who are more highly religious are less likely to use substances and less likely to experience substance-related consequences.

 

Integrating Spirituality into Mental Health Care

As religion can have a significant impact on mental health, spiritual needs arguably have a place in clinical practice. In addition to supporting religious engagement, psychiatrists should be willing to better understand the role religion plays in developing coping mechanisms and managing illness. They should also be prepared to identify spiritual needs that may require assistance, in the event that religion is causing a patient undue stress — the way it did for me. This approach will allow religious individuals to access more compassionate and comprehensive care.

This clinical engagement with religion may be especially relevant given the growing recognition of the need for enhanced cultural competency. Cultural competency must include basic knowledge of religion, especially as underserved communities can be more religious.

Finding a mental health professional that is willing to incorporate religious approaches into mental health care settings can improve a person’s engagement with treatment and improve their outcomes.

 

What Can Faith Institutions Do?

Faith institutions can play a critical role in the mental health of their communities. Notably, 25% of people who seek treatment for their mental illness first reached out to a faith leader.

Integrating mental health tools into religious practice can be difficult as there is often a lack of mental health resources in houses of faith. However, faith leaders must prepare themselves to discuss mental health issues and encourage community members to seek help. The American Psychiatric Association’s mental health guide can help guide this discussion. It provides a summary of mental illness, treatment options and religious matters. These conversations can make a huge difference, much like talking to a Catholic nun did for me.

Additionally, there are many steps religious or spiritual community members can take to support people affected by mental illness, including:

  • Have basic knowledge of mental illness
  • Be informed and share available community resources
  • Incorporate specific prayers for those affected by mental illness
  • Preach about mental illness
  • Publicize mental health information
  • Include mental illness in healing prayers and services
  • Host speakers on mental illness
  • Institute a peer-to-peer support program
  • Use people-first language

Progress is achievable; several existing initiatives are helping participants improve their lives, feel valued by society, connect with others and have positive relationships with their loved ones and community.

An innovative example of a faith-focused initiative to address the opioid crisis is the Imani Breakthrough program, which includes facilitation by people with lived experience. Another resource is NAMI’s FaithNet initiative, which is an interfaith information exchange for people affected by mental illness. This tool encourages the role of faith in recovery.

Renewed hope helped me find myself again after years of struggling. Central to that renewal was believing in a higher power as a source of comfort and support. It helped me cope with and address so many of the uncertainties of mental illness. And I am not ashamed that I questioned God’s love for me.

People with mental illness who have struggled long enough will question several aspects of their lives, including their most sacred beliefs. All people with mental illness need hope to reach recovery. This hope, in some cases, can be derived from religion. God is, once again, a source of hope for me, and I pray he’ll keep me well.

 

Katherine Ponte, B.A., J.D., MBA, CPRP, is a mental health advocate, writer, entrepreneur and lawyer. She has been living with severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis and extended periods of suicidal depression for 20 years and is now happily in recovery. Katherine is the Founder of ForLikeMinds, an online mental illness peer support community. She is a Faculty Member of the Program for Recovery and Community Health in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University’s School of Medicine. Katherine is also the Founder of BipolarThriving, which provides bipolar recovery coaching, and the Creator of Psych Ward Greeting Cards, which visits and distributes greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is a member of the Board of NAMI New York City and Fountain House. Katherine is the author of ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights.

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