COMMENTARY

Religion and Psychiatry: Clinicians Are Talking

Ronald W. Pies, MD; Cynthia Geppert, MD, PhD, MPH, MSBE

Disclosures

June 10, 2013

In This Article

Traversing Complex Territory

Counsel such as this gives us hope that Ms. A and those like her will find wise clinicians to navigate this unnecessary and potentially harmful impasse. Readers traced several paths to peace that we find sound, such as reaching out to the professor -- with Ms. A's consent -- to try and work together for the good of Ms. A. Others kindly but firmly recommended that the psychologist remain within his or her scope of practice and "mind the boundaries," which is excellent advice for us all when we traverse unfamiliar and complex territory. Readers underscored that such a balancing act is critical, if Ms. A is not to be presented with a false and alienating choice between her church and her psychiatrist, each of which can make a distinctive contribution to her well-being.

Commenters fairly distributed their trenchant criticisms of reductionism -- whether of the religious or secular variety -- and cautioned doctors and pastors to practice humility before the mystery of human suffering and resilience. One of the most astute postings was Todd Schoening's Socratic query to Ms. A:

What might I ask of this young woman? Does taking your medication, to you, allow you to embrace and understand your faith, or impede it? Alternatively, when off your medication, did you experience a more clear and peaceful and loving relationship with God and others, or was it different from that?

All members of professions that heal should have the integrity to subject their teaching to such an empirical test. Fundamentalism is not confined to Christianity, but has its counterparts in all of the great world religions; in secular humanism; and -- yes, Virginia -- in science and medicine. Many readers, such as Paul Botticelli, reminded us that a psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner could just as easily play the role of protagonist in Ms. A's drama:

"The Word of God" vs the "word of (some) men." These "elders of the church," or MDs who bring their religious theology into the practice of medicine, are part of a controlling tapestry that is woven by those who wish only to control others in the name of God. It is completely false and misleading to counsel vulnerable patients that they should not take necessary medication -- especially ones that are working well -- and place one's faith in God to heal one's illness. And to lay blame and shame on that person is obscene, to say the least! To ask someone to withhold their medication that has proven to be safe and effective would be similar to asking someone to withhold food and water -- and then rely on faith and prayer to God so that one might live. Such direction does not serve to glorify God at all; it does serve to be a power boost for the advice giver -- and that is purely criminal behavior.

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