Where Faith and Mental Health Meet
In private practice, integrity to one’s personal belief system is necessary for fully engaging the framework it provides for worldview, stability, and progress in healing. How does a Christian counsellor address denomination-specific issues within the context of her helping profession without adulterating her own stance both professionally and religiously? How can one counsel others and maintain the valued parameters of psychology and faith for both client and professional?
In this article, I help the professional believer to understand three things regarding the consideration of faith and mental health within a denominational context. I will discuss the need to differentiate between the varieties of religious expression and psychological symptoms, the more looming aspect religion should take in healing scenarios, and the way to help a client in light of their own denominational strengths.
Distinguish between expression and symptoms
William James addresses the “mental health . . . or . . . religious fantasy?” question in 1902, giving voice to the dilemma of deciphering questionable claims, symptoms, and apparently abnormal behaviour from those which were perceived as mental illness symptoms at that time and throughout religious history, in a series of lectures on natural religion (James, 2002). Some denominations might view certain rituals in other denominations as mental health issues if the group does not practice those same customs. In counselling, it therefore becomes necessary to understand the elements of the client’s belief system that may overlap with or mimic what the counsellor may deem as mental illness symptoms.
The Importance of Faith in Healing
Faith issues—religion, belief system, religious practices and dependence on prayer with mutual emotional support from fellow believers—often receive a secondary position in professional practices due to the perception of religion as non-scientific and because it is set against the more prominent back-drop of psychology, science, and mental health. However, in a powerful paragraph in The Psychology of Religion and Coping, author and Professor of Psychology at Bowling Green state University Kenneth I. Pargament cautions against casting religion aside, or minimizing it into a small part of the counsellor’s arsenal for treating mental health issues. He renounces the concept that holds religion captive in a minimalist view: “It must be emphasized that religion is not simply a way of coping.” Rather than being “fully involved in coping,” he says, “. . . it can provide an overarching framework for living, applicable to the widest range of human experience” (Pargament, 1997).
Help your client maintain religious integrity
What can you do if you are not a religious professional or your client’s denomination or religion is different from yours? Help your client move toward the helpful aspects of their own belief system. We cannot know and fully understand each client’s faith system, but we can identify the helpful features within religious belief in general and help our client navigate toward those features. Pargament identifies the proven features of religion that are helpful in healing and coping. At the time of his writing, he found that spiritual support, collaborative religious coping, congregational support and benevolent religious reframing were effective in helping clients to heal. For patients with cancer, Jenkins and Pargament (1995) found that keeping God in the equation resulted in “. . . higher self-esteem and better adjustment according to the ratings of their nurses.”
It is clearly more human and caring, more professional and effective to challenge erroneous or harmful beliefs gently by way of entering the client’s theological dialogue if you are well versed in it or referring the client to the positive attributes of their denomination as Pargament identified above.
James, W. (2002). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature : being the Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. New York: Modern Library.
Jenkins, R. A., & Pargament, K. I. (January 01, 1995). Religion and Spirituality as Resources for Coping with Cancer. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 13, 51.
Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford Press.