It is estimated that almost half (45%) of the Australian population will experience a mental disorder at some time in their lifetime (about 8.7 million people based on the estimated 2017 population). An extract from Our World Data estimates estimates that globally around 970 million people were living with a mental health or substance-use disorder in 2017. There is no denying that mental health issues are one of the biggest challenges in our world today. As a society - as we have more and more public conversations around this issue; and the traditional stigma associated with mental health slowly but surely fades away; it is perhaps likely that we have in fact underestimated just how many of us are impacted in some way by mental health challenges.
Over the last ten years; as well as working in the Queensland mental health system; I have also been proactively raising general community and workplace awareness and understanding of mental health issues through the delivery of several mental health literacy courses including Mental Health First Aid. Lately I have been reflecting on this journey, trying to find the missing link in the narrative. That missing link in the conversation I believe, is the interrelation of religion and/or spirituality with our mental health and how we can harness this resource to positively influence our mental health and emotional wellbeing.
In 2014 after a very traumatic car accident, I was diagnosed with anxiety. As I navigated the system to get help and support for myself, I remember having a conversation with my mother about my diagnosis and she said something to me in Setswana (my mother language); that she often said whenever things were tough; and that is “Modimo o teng” - which is translated in English as “God is there”. This is a phrase my mother used to bring me comfort, meaning and hope to soften any struggles of life.
Religion and/or spirituality is an important source of strength for many people who experience life challenges including mental health issues.
The 2016 Australian Census indicated that Christian religion affiliations were reported by 52% of the population. Non-Christian religions represented about 8% of the population. The 2016 Australian census also recorded that the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 2.6% of the total Australian population. About 39% of the population stated they had no religion or did not state their religion.
Religion or faith-based affiliation is a significant expression for more than 60% of Australians, therefore a conversation about religion and/or spirituality and its associated outcomes for mental health is overdue. Religion and/or spirituality provides an individual with a sense of connection to something bigger than self and how one fits in with the world. It also creates a sense of community and connectedness, and most importantly gives the individual a sense of purpose and hope. All of these are protective factors for mental health and have positive impacts on the individual’s wellbeing.
Although there are many documented positive impacts of religion and/or spirituality on the overall health and wellbeing of an individual, there is no denying that the religion and/spirituality is expressed differently depending on the individual belief system which is influenced by many factors including cultural factors. This differing belief system can also be detrimental to people’s own health and wellbeing. For example, people who believe that prayer and/or meditation alone will cure their mental health issues are not likely to present voluntarily at a mental health service for care and support. Some individuals would choose different forms of spiritual cleansing such as exorcism over cognitive behaviour therapy and other evidence-based therapies any day.
There is also an increasing stigmatisation of mental health issues in the faith-based communities including the believe that mental illness is caused by lack of prayer and faith or sin; sometimes it is the believe that the evil spirit has influence on the individual experiencing a mental health crisis. This belief system is likely to lead to people being disconnected from communities of support and service providers resulting in a decline in people’s mental health.
Religion and/or spiritual interventions and mental health care and support are not supposed to be mutually exclusive but must interface and align to enable the flourishing of the whole of the person and challenge understanding on perceptions of mental health issues.
My belief is that as long as the mental health sector; and the messaging around mental health and suicide prevention miss this; I fear many people will simply choose to continue to just “pray about it” rather than a combination of prayer or meditation and professional mental health care. Similarly, in cases of individuals faced with severe illnesses such as cancer; this can be observed in evidence of increased mortality where individuals embrace alternative therapies at the exclusion of conventional medicine when often the best outcomes are seen by those who incorporate both in combination.
There is no doubt that religion and/or spirituality forms a part of the individual’s core understanding of the world they live in and how they interact with it and others. Most poignant on this is the application of religion and or/spirituality as a coping mechanism for people from ethnic communities which bring enormous implications in relation to explanatory models of mental health issues, service access and treatment.
If you were to ask me about the impact of my faith in my recovery journey from anxiety – I will tell you that “I was spurred on by my mother’s favourite phrase of ‘Modimo o teng’ – and yes I prayed my anxiety away many times, but I also saw my doctor, had a mental health care plan, took medication, saw a psychologist and did many other things to keep me well and still do”
Mental Health is such a challenging issue, we must identify and utilise every possible tool at our disposal in a collaborative sense so that no one is left behind, no one feels isolated and no one ever feels the need to choose faith and/or spirituality over professional mental health care and support. As unlikely bedfellows as it seems, they are not meant to be mutually exclusive.
Upcoming Community Conversations
If you are interested to be part of discussions on this topic – Sharon Orapeleng will be hosting a series of community conversations on Religion and/or Spirituality and Mental Health in Brisbane from September 2019. If you are interested to know more details please send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or check the website on www.psychedsolutions.com.au for further updates.
Follow Sharon Orapeleng on social media Twitter- @sharonora Facebook - @SharonOrapeleng Linkedin @SharonOrapeleng
If this topic has caused any concerns for you or someone you know, please call the following helplines or visit your local GP.
Lifeline Australia 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
Looking for support and advice, call beyond blue - 1300 22 4636