Religion and/or Spirituality on our Mental Health – A Conversation We Must Have!

“I prayed my anxiety away many times ” Sharon Orapeleng

“I prayed my anxiety away many times” Sharon Orapeleng

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 or check the website on 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


The Survival Spirit : I am a Breast Cancer Survivor - By B.K.S Orapeleng

October is Australia’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which provides an opportunity for us all to focus on breast cancer and its impact on those affected by the disease in our community. Like many families around the world, breast cancer has impacted my family. 

It was in October 2010 when I received the horrible news that no daughter should receive. It was about my mother Betty’s diagnosis of breast cancer. This diagnosis came as a huge blow to my mother who was at that time supporting her sister Mmeisi through her recent diagnosis of breast cancer. My mother is a pillar of strength in our family and to witness and to experience her pain and despair throughout her recovery journey from a breast cancer diagnosis has been both inspirational and heart breaking.

In March 2013 we experienced a terrible loss of Mmeisi, my mother’s sister. I was there in the last week of her life, I held her hand, I experienced her pain, I fought with her and  for her but in the end, the battle with cancer was lost. She was a mother of five, with the youngest only five years old. A lot can be said about the public health system in Botswana that I believe failed her, that failed us, that failed her children but anger will not bring her back. I now focus my energies in creating awareness of breast cancer and talking about the importance of early detection and treatment and fundraising for breast cancer research. 

As a daughter of a mother who is a breast cancer survivor and a very strong family history of breast cancer, I have been put in the basket of the "high risk" category, which means every 6 months I go through the rigorous breast cancer examination to rule out anything sinister. Every 6 months I sit by the waiting room of the Wesley Breast Cancer Clinic  after all the testing waiting to hear whether I have cancer or not. It is one of the most horrid moments of my life. However, I am grateful to have access to the best health care system here in Australia and  can sleep better at night knowing the rigorous diagnostic process I undertake every 6 months will ensure that if ever anything develops, it will be detected early which increases chances of survival. Above all, having a mother with such a champion heart and strength like no other makes me belief that any health changes that come my way, I will survive it. She continues to pave a way for us and we draw on her "survival spirit".  

As we conclude this breast cancer awareness month of October, I like to share with you in her own words, my mother's "Survival Spirit". May it reach you and inspire you!

The Survival Spirit: I am a Breast Cancer Survivor - By Betty Orapeleng

Having been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 was like a hurricane in my life. From the moment I got the news, to the ongoing tests and treatments, it was a whirlwind through the medical system, I was scared, anxious, stressed and insomniac. When the dust settled, I found myself in the middle of limbo land. I tried to get back to the swing of things and move on, well the rest of my life was trying to find a way to a new normal. I needed to figure out what I can do in my everyday life to reduce the risk of ever seeing that cancer again. To look at my life and say “What was going on in my life before my diagnosis that may have played a role in putting me at risk? Was my life full of stress and hurt? Was I overweight? Was I eating all the wrong stuff…… I needed to know what I did that I needed to change because God knows I don’t want this to happen again.

While there likely isn’t one thing that you did to cause the cancer, there are things you can do to live your healthy life moving forward – as a Survivor. Once your doctor tells you that you have breast cancer – you can’t hear anything else…….. a powerful statement – “You have breast cancer” – your life changes with a snap of a finger. When I came to my normal senses, I began to have a unique blend of insight as to how best I could maintain wellness again beyond breast cancer….The Spirit of Survival strengthened. I always knew that healing is God’s will. So I started to say “why this wrestling” then the ceasefire state in my body began to develop. Cancer and I, have established a truce state in my body where we co-exist. I learned new ways of handling predicaments and tribulations, understanding that God may permit problems you are facing in life for the benefit they might bring such as to direct you (Proverbs 20vs 30), inspect you (James 1vs 2-3), correct you (Psalm 119vs 71-72), protect you (Genesis 50vs20), and perfect you (Romans 5vs 3-4).

I was intrigued and inspired by one article from one doctor who compares cancer to weeds as it crowds out good crops and plants. It comes as a result of unhealthy soil that compromised by stress, robbed of nutrients, contaminated by chemicals plus its further strained by negative life style habits. We should be evaluating multiple areas of our lives; quality of sleep, stress factors, food intake, weight and amount of exercise……………the root causes that may have contributed to the development of cancer in each individual.

In view of all these experiences, I looked inside myself for strength, knowing that Greater one lives in me, in every cell of my blood, in every bone of my body and in every fiber of my being. There are always some flat and stormy days, and that is okay…I always say to myself….IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL. Thanking my strong family support, -  my children, my husband and siblings, as they are a very strong, sound support structure – having people you can talk to, who understand what it is like living with a monster, relieves the burden of feeling alone. Sharing with others in a similar position also helps nip out the thorn that has deepened into your heart, soul and body. Taking responsibility for, and owning your physical and emotional wellbeing is hugely liberating and empowering. With God All things are possible The word of God in Mark 11:22 “ Jesus said to them, Believe in God” AMEN…………

Watch Betty's story here on Youtube: Click Here