Holly K. Oxhandler, Ph.D., LMSW, is the associate dean for research and faculty development at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the ethical and effective integration of religion and spirituality in mental health care. Oxhandler also cohosts the weekly podcast, CXMH: Christianity & Mental Health.
To Mental Health Care Providers and Faith Leaders: A Note of Gratitude and a Call to Connect
May 22, 2020
This article was first published on Dr. Holly Oxhandler’s website and is used with her permission here.
Dear mental health care providers and faith leaders –
I want to begin by thanking you for all that you are doing right now in this season to care for and protect those you serve. In the last several weeks, we have watched as you shifted to online sessions and sermons to remain connected, while modeling social distancing as you continue to support those you serve. Thank you for the endless ways you’re nurturing the well-being of those who look to you for guidance, wisdom, hope, support, and permission to grieve. Your presence matters to so many of us right now and we are deeply grateful for the ways you are tenderly caring for us to the best of your abilities.
I also want to offer a long overdue request that has been at the heart of my research for the last decade, one that is even more relevant today and the months ahead as it has ever been.
Mental health care providers: please consider the role of your clients’ religious/spiritual beliefs and practices (whatever they may be) as you hold space for them navigating these uncertain times, assess their struggles and strengths, and consider potential referrals/resources across faith traditions.
Faith leaders: please consider your congregation members’ mental health concerns and needs (whatever they may be) as you plan your sermons, discern ministry opportunities, and consider referrals/resources tied to mental health care.
Some of you have been considering the intersection of faith and mental health (as well as relevant sources of support) in the lives of those you serve for as long as you’ve been in your roles. However, as fellow researchers and I have found in our studies, many have not. Whether you have or not, and recognizing that few of you received training on this intersection, my request is that you begin considering it today and take one small step to bridge this gap, particularly in honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month. If it’s helpful, please check out these resources or CXMH, a weekly podcast on faith and mental health that I host with Robert Vore, as a starting point and to share with colleagues. (I also have a regular newsletter that always includes resources—you can sign up for that at my website.)
This is an unprecedented moment for all of us. We are all wading in a heavy state of collective overwhelm and uncertainty, each of us having our sense of normal drastically changed, often on a day-by-day basis. We’re all doing the best we can with the energy, resources, access, support, and attention we have to give. That includes the faith leaders and mental health care providers who are supporting others. (Check out this recent New York Times article, “Therapists and Patients Find Common Ground: Virus-Fueled Anxiety.”)
We’re also beginning to collectively recognize the trends around how inextricably connected our faith and mental health are, particularly in this season. Interestingly, as the Washington Post reports our nation’s mental health needs drastically rising, the Pew Research Center finds that nearly a quarter of Americans are saying their faith has strengthened during this pandemic. As we grieve our illusion of control, many of us are discovering our faith and mental health overlap in ways we may not have been mindful of before.
While these rising numbers point to this connection tangentially, researchers have been studying this complex intersection for years. In a national survey my research team conducted in fall 2018, we found that 64% of U.S. adults who are currently seeking mental health services agree that their faith is relevant to their mental health (20% disagree and 16% are neutral). Similarly, about two-thirds of these mental health clients said that engaging in their religious/spiritual practices improves their mental health and that their religious/spiritual beliefs motivate them to become mentally healthy. Not only does faith impact mental health, but 62% said the healthier they feel mentally, the more they want to engage in their religion/spirituality. (This article is forthcoming in the journal, Social Work.)
These areas of our lives are intimately connected with one another and to silo or separate them in this season could negatively impact those we’re trying to help in our roles. Certainly, mental health care providers and faith leaders must ethically practice within their professional training, but it’s worth remembering that includes seeking consultation, support, and resources from others who have the training in the other area and/or on the intersection of both areas.
For example, those facing mental health struggles may find themselves leaning on or questioning their higher power during difficult times, engaging in spiritual practices to cope (e.g., prayer, meditation, read religious texts, etc.), or seeking support from their faith community, even while practicing social distancing. These areas of our lives can be woven together to support healing by combining healthy coping mechanisms with a grounded faith in a divine love, and/or we may be wrestling with our faith, spiritual traumas, or negative religious coping. In fact, a growing number of research studies suggest that considering mental health clients’ unique religious/spiritual beliefs and practices in treatment actually improves outcomes across a number of mental health issues and that clients prefer to include this area of their lives in treatment.
This nudge to consider the intersection between faith and mental health isn’t just for those you serve as helpers, whether as a faith leader or mental health care provider. As a fellow helper, we cannot offer to others that which we don’t reflect upon and offer ourselves. To the best of your ability and regardless of your personal faith and/or mental health background, I hope that you will offer yourself the space you need to tend to your own spiritual and mental health needs in this season, especially as you hold space for others’ spiritual and mental health needs. (See this Q&A for more.)
To mental health care providers and faith leaders, thank you for all that you do to humbly serve others, especially in this season. You are invaluable to our communities, and my hope is that you can lean on and learn from one another as you collectively care for your communities, those around you, and yourselves.