Bridging the Divide Between Theology and Mental Health Science

By: Marcia Webb

May 22, 2020

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

For several decades, research has consistently demonstrated that a vast majority of society believes in God. Religion, then, is not at the margins of human experience. Despite the occasional forecast of doom for traditional belief systems, religious faith continues to be a vital part of many lives, and as such, it influences, and is influenced by, the entirety of human experience, including experience with mental health conditions.

Unfortunately, the disciplines of theology and of the health sciences have not always appreciated, nor even acknowledged, the complex interactions between religiosity and mental health in any one person’s experience. Among some theologians, researchers, pastors, and mental health professionals, there may be a reluctance to consider the possibility of these interactions. As a psychologist who studies both theology and mental disorder, I am familiar with the concerns of some social scientists that any attempt to integrate the findings of these separate fields will compromise the scientific rigor necessary for research. I have also heard clinicians describe faith experience in almost entirely pathological terms. On the other hand, theologians and pastors may at times mistrust social science in general and psychotherapy or psychotropic medications in particular. 

The problems and misunderstanding inherent in these attitudes present significant challenges for the important, much-needed collaboration among theologians, researchers, pastors, and mental health professionals. However, the greatest challenge posed by these attitudes is experienced by those persons with mental health conditions who are also believers. And this is likely no small group of people. Given that so many persons report religious faith of some kind, and also that mental illness may afflict as many as 25% of adults in the United States, I would argue, in fact, that such persons may be everywhere in society, albeit perhaps silently. When theologians, researchers, pastors, and mental health practitioners do not work together, they limit the support they can provide people of faith with mental disorders. 

We might wonder how these attitudes emerged. The long history of scholarship over the centuries in the Western world demonstrates an increasing disintegration between theological systems of belief and other forms of academic inquiry. While it may have once been assumed that all knowledge was grounded in theological understanding, we find ourselves in the contemporary university studying various disciplines in specialized silos apart from scholars of nearly all other disciplines, including that of theology. Although theologians, researchers, pastors, and mental health professionals may study the same phenomena, their separate visions of that phenomena differ greatly due to the unique theories, language, and methodology in which they were trained. As a result, we may struggle to know how to benefit from each other’s work. With regard to theology and mental health, in particular, we may study similar elements of human suffering (as a theologian might understand it) or of stress, trauma, and even pathological symptomology (as a mental health professional might describe it). Both perspectives may have validity, but we still struggle to integrate them.

For the sake of persons with mental health conditions, we need to do more to bridge these academic divides. After all, these divides do not exist in the real world, that is, in the actual experience of the person. These divides have emerged as an artifact of the development of various disciplines and of the training of theologians, researchers, pastors, and mental health professionals in those disciplines; they are evidence of the limitations of our understanding, our language, and our methods to capture anything as multifaceted and mysterious as human experience. 

And, if these divides are due, at least in part, to the training process within various disciplines, I think, then, it is—at the very least—at the level of training that change must also occur. For example, theological seminaries need to address issues related to mental health conditions in their ministry programs. They need to include study of the wealth of research now suggesting that some forms of faith experience may be (from a psychological perspective) an important, beneficial coping mechanism associated with better overall health, both physical and mental. They need also to consider the complexity of the faith experience evident from psychological research suggesting that specific beliefs are related to poorer coping with stress or that religious stigma negatively impacts persons with mental health conditions. 

Education about religion and mental health must also occur in programs which train persons to be mental health practitioners of various types (psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, etc.). Appreciation of the role of various religious influences in human experience must be considered an integral part of clinical preparation and treatment. With greater discussion of these issues in the training of the next generation of theologians, researchers, pastors, and mental health professionals, there will also be the possibility for more profound understanding around the appropriate role of spirituality and religion in psychotherapy, the potential development for ministries related to mental health issues, and new, creative associations between ministries and mental health interventions. Teams of professionals—including perhaps ministers, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists—may be more likely to understand the need not to remain alone on one’s established professional turf, but to work together to address the complex challenges of mental health conditions.

This will require some structural changes in academic curricula. As a professor for more than 20 years, I recognize the herculean struggle and long-suffering that can ensue when even seemingly minimal changes in programs are proposed. But our training must reflect our encounter with the reality of human experience, not first and foremost an adherence to theories, language, and methods that are insufficient to address our expanding understanding of the person.

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