“With God, we can cope better”: 4 ways the Christian faith protects mental health
by Gracia Lee // September 16, 2021, 6:19 pm
"The church should provide support for those with mental illness, very much like they would provide physical health support if someone is crippled or handicapped in any way," said CEO of IMH Adjunct Assoc Prof Daniel Fung. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.
The recent findings by a local study, which revealed that spirituality plays an important role in improving one’s mental health, is a powerful reminder for believers to cling to their faith during difficult times, as well as share it with others who are struggling, said Deputy Senior Pastor Chua Seng Lee of Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church.
“When you’re struggling in life, don’t give up on God … People with faith are not immune to mental health issues and disorders. But if anything, this study is telling us that, with God, we can cope better,” said Ps Seng Lee, co-founder of Christian Mental Health Advocates, which aims to bring the Church and allied health professionals together.
God can help
The study, which was published in March this year by a team from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, found that those with a religion enjoyed better mental health compared to those without a religion.
Spirituality, in particular, played a significant role in boosting positive mental health for Christians, with their faith offering them comfort and strength during tough times. (This was also true for other religions studied.)
“If anything, these results are to comfort and encourage you to keep on keeping on.”
However, Ps Seng Lee urged Christians who struggle with mental health issues not to feel condemned or guilty about their struggles.
“If anything, these results are to comfort and encourage you to keep on keeping on,” he said.
Noting that the study only shows general associations, CEO of IMH Adjunct Associate Professor Daniel Fung, agreed.
He explained: “It’s the same thing – I give you a vaccine and generally you get 95% protection from serious illness. But there will be the 5% who will still get serious illness, and that could be you … It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means that you have it tough.
“The point is: God can help,” he said, adding that there are other aspects of help that can be beneficial, including medical treatment and increased emotional support.
Faith that offers hope
There are several reasons why the Christian faith can be protective for mental health, said Prof Fung and Ps Seng Lee in response to questions by Salt&Light.
1. Religion provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose, even in suffering
Prof Fung said: “I’ve always believed that the spiritual dimension is an important aspect of health. So if you have a belief system that gives you good values and gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, it is likely to increase your resilience and make you more able to cope in situations of intolerable stress … because it allows you some solace, some comfort, knowing that there is something that you can look towards in your religion.”
For example, he highlighted the biblical perspective of how trials can strengthen and build up one’s faith (James 1:12; Romans 5:3-5).
“This improves mental health and well-being because you know that if you’re going through a trial and you’re suffering, you’re actually becoming better for it,” he said, adding that one’s perspective on suffering can define whether one thrives or languishes in a setback.
2. It offers us comfort through a personal relationship with a loving God
Another reason why the Christian faith is supportive of mental health is because it is based on a personal relationship with God, said Prof Fung.
“What really comforts us is the ‘Who’, knowing that, in our pain, the abiding presence of God will never leave us nor forsake us.”
“Relationships are the basis for a lot of mental health issues, and if you have a personal relationship with God, then obviously it is protective because you have an additional relationship over and above your normal human relationships,” he said.
It helps that our personal relationship with God can be deeply authentic and intimate, as we are assured that our good and loving God is always with us at every turn of our lives, added Ps Seng Lee.
“If you look at the journey of pain, we always ask: Why? It’s a human thing. But even if you know the ‘why’, it doesn’t take away the pain. What really comforts us is the ‘Who’, knowing that, in our pain, the abiding presence of God will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8).”
Pointing to Psalm 88, which sees the psalmist lamenting to, and even accusing, God of afflicting him, Ps Seng Lee added that God also offers us a safe place to express our raw and uncensored feelings of pain, anger and disappointment over life’s suffering.
“It’s important to know that we can give Him everything. We can grieve in His presence, we can rant in His presence, we can release our frustrations to Him … God is not intimidated by our anger. He understands,” he said.
3. It promises us hope of an eternal future without suffering
Even while grieving over the worst of suffering, including the death of a loved one, believers can cling to the hope of God’s promise that they will one day be reunited with their loved ones in a place without pain, death and suffering (Revelation 21:4), Ps Seng Lee said.
4. It teaches us healthy coping mechanisms and the truth of how we were made to live
Apart from giving us hope, the Bible also offers us healthy coping mechanisms, such as prayer, to deal with life’s stressors, said Ps Seng Lee.
He added that we were all made to enjoy an abundant life, and the Bible lays out the path that allows us to do so – much like how an instruction manual teaches us how to use a device in the way it was created to be used.
It is important for us as believers to allow God’s Word to renew our minds and take root in our hearts.
For example, commands not to worry or be anxious about our lives (Philippians 4:6; Matthew 6:25-26), and to rejoice and be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) teach us that we were never meant to shoulder life’s burdens on our own.
And while the world may influence us to believe that we need affirmation, success and security to be happy, Scripture redefines for us what is truly important and teaches us that real joy is found when we deny ourselves and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34-38).
It is thus important for us as believers to allow God’s Word to renew our minds and take root in our hearts, he stressed.
“If it’s just a concept to us, it’s just a concept. It won’t save us. We need to learn how to apply and embrace these truths in our lives,” he said, though qualifying that this discipleship process does not happen overnight.
Believers are not immune
Nevertheless, both Ps Seng Lee and Prof Fung stressed that this does not mean that believers who take God’s Word seriously will never struggle with mental health issues.
They noted that mental health – a broader concept of overall well-being – is different from having a mental disorder, such as depression, which can be due to genetic factors rather than environmental ones.
The cross-sectional study by IMH found no evidence to show that people with a religion are less likely to have a mental disorder. To study such a correlation, a longitudinal study will have to be conducted, said Prof Fung.
“I don’t think that having a religion is going to stop you from developing an illness if you have the genetic risk,” he said. “But it will help you to cope with it better, because you are more able to see the good side of suffering.”
Learning to love a hurting world
In a discussion of the study’s results, researchers said that involving religious organisations and places of worship in mental health promotion would be beneficial at the population level.
“Our study indicates that religious and spiritual advisors can, not only serve as an important resource for people with mental disorders, but they can also play a significant role in improving PMH in the population,” they said.
“Sometimes we’re so good at advocating truth, but we lack grace.”
While Ps Seng Lee agreed with this conclusion, he acknowledged that religion can backfire if the Church espouses unhelpful or hurtful perspectives that invalidate the sufferer’s pain – for example, advice to “snap out of it” or to “trust God and move on”.
“There is a need for us to know how to manage mental health challenges, to show the grace of God with truth. Sometimes we’re so good at advocating truth, but we lack grace,” he said.
“We should be patient with people as they process things, just as God would with us. Just as the doctor cannot hurry his patients to get well, pastors or Christian leaders cannot expect the person with mental health issues to recover at our speed or at our preference.”
He believes that the Church will benefit from moving forward in humility as it learns how to better care for its members.
“Let’s pray for the person who has cancer. Let’s also pray for the person who has depression or has schizophrenia.”
“How can we represent Him correctly to the world that is hurting?” he asked. “It is when we think we know that we hurt the very people whom we are trying to love. We must humble ourselves to learn from God, His wisdom and His truth that is revealed in science and other disciplines.”
This includes working with mental health professionals within the Church to provide better support for its members, though he pointed out that spiritual discernment is needed when it comes to certain methods of treatment, such as hypnotism.
Prof Fung added that churches will do well to treat mental illnesses like physical illnesses.
“Let’s pray for the person who has cancer. Let’s also pray for the person who has depression or has schizophrenia. Let’s do both,” he said.
“People with mental illnesses are just like anyone else. Bring them to church, offer them opportunities to worship and fellowship with other believers, and include them within the greater church community in activities.
“The church should provide support for them, very much like we would provide physical health support if someone is crippled or handicapped in any way,” he said, adding that support groups can be helpful as well.
“In the recovery of patients, there is much that the Church can do. Unfortunately, those with serious illness will spiral towards not being able to find a job and being rejected by people, so they are the ones that Jesus described (as needy and downtrodden). If we treat a mentally ill person well, then we are doing the same to Jesus.”
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