An Elephant in the Room for Clinicians

Gregory Scott Brown, MD


June 02, 2022

The following is an excerpt from the newly released book "The Self-Healing Mind: An Essential Five-Step Practice for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression, and Revitalizing Your Life."

As interlaced as spirituality and medicine are, some churches and religious practices have historically suggested that mental illness can only be dealt with in the church itself.

Conventional medicine isn't without blame, either, because sometimes it may seem like science and faith contradict each other, and medical doctors may be hesitant about having conversations about faith with their patients. One common myth is that most medical doctors don't believe in God. Numerous surveys have suggested that a majority of physicians actually do believe in God and most medical doctors also consider themselves religious.

You can still find areas where medicine and religion seem to clash when it comes to what causes mental illness and the best course of treatment. Dating back to medieval and early modern periods in western European history, demonic possession was widely attributed as a cause for mental illness. During the Middle Ages, exorcisms were generally thought of as the accepted treatment for the erratic behavior of demoniacs.

Today, many faith leaders are pushing back against misinformation that claims mental illness is the result of sin. Academic centers like the Muslim Mental Health Lab at Stanford University are also incorporating programs to help better understand the unique relationship between religious faith and mental health. Moreover, the American Psychiatric Association houses a Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership to help foster a dialogue between religious leaders and psychiatrists.

"For too long, the Church has not viewed mental health as a legitimate concern," says Dr. Ronique Wilson, a licensed psychologist and ministry director of the Wise Women Project based in Houston, Texas. "We discount it and make it a faith issue. If you interacted with a person who had high blood pressure, diabetes, or a cancer diagnosis, you wouldn't tell them to stop taking their medication. That's because you believe that medication has a purpose in helping to address whatever the medical issue is. But when you have a mental health issue, too often people hear they don't need medication, they don't need therapy, they don't need inpatient treatment because if you just will your mind to be better, then you will be better."

She, along with her husband Blake Wilson, a pastor of the Crossover Bible Fellowship, agree that religious leaders have a unique opportunity to educate their congregations about mental health. They can reach people from all walks of life to explain why, in times of crisis, prayer can help, but many people will also benefit from seeking out the care of a qualified mental health professional.

I have personally witnessed the importance of mental health professionals and churches working together. A young African American woman who was experiencing a psychotic episode was once admitted at an inpatient psychiatric facility where I was working. She was extremely ill, experiencing delusions of persecution—she felt unsafe and she was hearing voices. Although she wanted the medical team to help her get better, she was adamant that we communicate with her pastor first. It wasn't until he came to the hospital, met with the medical team, and prayed at the bedside with the young woman and her family that she made the decision to take medications. Eventually she recovered.

Spirituality can be a powerful self-care practice for mental health because it can offer community, hope, and purpose. It can provide direction when it seems like your life is going nowhere. Religion is only one of many spiritual paths. These kinds of spiritual self-care practices don't always come easy—you need to make room for them—but when you do, you'll see they can offer a host of benefits that will bolster your mental health even during the most stressful of times.

Gregory Scott Brown, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist and widely published mental health writer based in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @gregorysbrownmd.


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