Religion and Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19

By: Jeff Levin

May 22, 2020

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

Decades of research point to religion as a protective factor against psychological distress and mental illness. This is especially so for depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviors like alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and suicide. Religion also influences patterns of mental health care utilization, including psychiatric care and hospitalization. Findings point to salutary impacts of personal expressions of faith, and come from studies conducted by epidemiologists, psychiatrists, and health services researchers.

Institutionally, too, evidence suggests that religion makes a difference. Congregations, denominations, and faith-based organizations, coalitions, foundations, and philanthropies operating in the voluntary sector impact mental health through organizing, sponsoring, or funding partnerships and alliances with mental healthcare providers, hospitals, and public health agencies. Effects of the personal and institutional contributions of religion are evident now in the midst of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and global epidemic of COVID-19 cases.

The promise of religion in confronting the current mental health challenge is three-fold. First, ideally, religious faith and institutional religion can be sources of comfort and support. The messages preached by clergy and the fellowship provided by congregants are resources that can strengthen and give hope and meaning to our brothers and sisters at this difficult time. But religion can also can be a source of judgment, condemnation, and divisiveness, reinforcing our sense of victimhood, our impotence and powerlessness, and our isolation and loneliness.

For the past few months, we have seen the good and bad sides of religion’s pastoral role expressed. We have read inspiring stories of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other centers of faith opening their doors to feed, shelter, comfort, and provide healthcare to frightened people with nowhere else to turn. We have also read disturbing stories of clergy and congregations of all faiths acting in the most reckless ways possible, ramping up anger and violating public health warnings and restrictions, placing the lives of the most vulnerable among them in danger and resulting in confirmed cases of disease and death.

Second, religious people and institutions have been living out the ethical charge set forth in the sacred writings of respective faith traditions. It is interesting to note the consonance of the core distinctives of public health with explicitly religious values. Foremost are a focus on communitarianism and social justice. Public health is about promoting collective action, selfless service to others, and labor in the cause of helping the downtrodden and those at special risk of morbidity and mortality. When clergy call on us to live up to the ideals promoted by our religious founders, saviors, and prophets—Moses, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammed—they are imploring us to partner with God in acts of redemption and healing. At its best, the values of public health are resonant with religious values such as Judaism’s duty to heal; Catholic social teaching, including its preferential option for the poor; and Islam’s great pillar of zakat, or obligatory alms-giving to the needy.

Third, the current public health challenge has provided us with an opportunity to live out a natural experiment in moral theology. The faith sector must decide whether to fulfill its prophetic role, calling us out of complacency and sin and encouraging and empowering us to serve and, if required, to sacrifice. Many congregations and clergy have answered the call; others, not so much. Some preaching has inspired constructive action; other messages have served only to up the temperature, creating fear, panic, craziness, and hostility. Rather than a force that comforts those in distress, religion here becomes a source of distress. What we need are good theological models for how to proceed.

One useful model is the so-called three-legged stool referenced by the great faith traditions. This metaphor addresses the question, “How is it that we go about serving God?” Jesus had an answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). 

His words closely recapitulate the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 6:5), which in turn informed the Mishnaic formula that states that the world stands on three things: torah (studying scripture), avodah (worship), g’milut chasadim (service to others) (M. Avot 1:2). Interestingly, there are two versions of this formula; the second holds that the three things are emet (truth), shalom (peace), din (one of the words for justice) (M. Avot 1:18). The former set of three things are our charge; the latter are the results if we fulfill this charge. This is the most fundamental expression in the rabbinic canon of the task set before us, presently and in general. 

A similar formula is referenced centuries later in the Hadith of Al-Tirmidhi: “O people! Worship Allah, the Beneficent, feed His bondsmen, and spread salaam [peace] much, and you will reach Heaven in safety.” How remarkable—but not surprising—that the wisdom of the Prophet is consonant with the words of Jesus and of the Mishnah. How inspiring that the great monotheisms speak in one voice here.

This imploration reminds us of our challenge when confronting a psychologically disruptive mass event. Some of us may be too frightened to move, but those who can act are required to draw on their spiritual resources to serve. Institutional religion may provide resources, spiritual and organizational, that can encourage and reinforce our acting pastorally, ethically, and morally for the good of those in an emotionally fragile place.

Referencing the three-legged stool again, religion has much to offer here, personally and institutionally. Truth is the remedy for delusions of hopelessness and fear that insidiously fuel self-destructive ideations and behavior. Peace is the remedy for strife that produces depression and anxiety in ourselves and others whose paths we cross. Acts of justice are the remedy for the lacunae of access and the structural inequity that deny much needed mental healthcare to those among us in poverty or isolated or otherwise unable to obtain the services they need. Religion, at its most elevated, can be a precious helpmate to us, both for addressing the mental health sequelae of the current epidemic and for resolving the population-health disparities that still plague our world.

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