Religion and Mental Health Care: Ethics, Pastoral Care, and Theology

May 22, 2020

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A nun holds a candle while praying in a church

The relationship between religion and mental health care is complex. The early days of psychiatry saw the dismissal and even attack of religious experience, with foundational figures such as Sigmund Freud known for associating faith with hysteria and neurosis. More recent years have seen greater collaboration between religion and psychiatry, with efforts to link the strengths of faith leaders and mental health professionals. Research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with better mental health outcomes such as lower rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior. So, religion can be a helpful factor in mental health treatment.

But there remain challenges at the intersection of religion and mental health care. Some theological beliefs—about pervasive sin or a wrathful God, for example—can lead to negative mental health outcomes. Faith communities can also contribute to “religious trauma” and reinforce stigma, further complicating mental health care. And some health providers remain reluctant to integrate faith perspectives into clinical care. The interface between faith and mental health remains a fertile ground for further reflection from religious and scientific voices, especially as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to an increase in mental health problems

A recent student research project, sponsored by the Berkley Center, considers some of these tensions in the relationship between religion and mental health. The project explores the varied ways in which religious communities approach mental health care, based on interviews with faith leaders around Washington, DC. To complement the project, and in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, the Berkley Forum invites scholars and practitioners to consider the intersections between religion and mental health. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What are some of the challenges and possibilities of faith engagement in mental health care? How can theology inform approaches to mental health care in clinical and religious settings? How can religious leaders balance pastoral and clinical care as they help community members who experience mental health challenges? What are some of the ethical issues at the intersection of religion and mental health care?

related publication | A Virtuous Cycle in Support of Mental Health: Service, Self-Care, Community

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