Written by Rithika Ramkumar
The relationship between religion and mental health can be incredibly complex. For some people, religion was the birth of many mental health struggles, either through community pressures or tenants of the religion that aggravated the person and their personal beliefs. At the same time, religion can be a soothing, beneficial presence in many people’s lives. While I’ll go into depth about both of these perspectives, what’s most important about the relationship between religion and mental health is being able to keep an open mind. Having a negative experience with religion does not automatically mean that everyone’s experience is negative. While you deserve respect and understanding of your experiences and trauma, it’s important not to presume other people’s lives for them.
Many people believe that religion has a positive effect on people’s mental health. Religion offers a “cognitive structure whereby pacifying explanations and attributions serve to order an otherwise chaotic world” (Schumaker 3). Put simply, in a vast, growing, and increasingly stressful and confusing world, religion offers boundaries and a set of rules that often plays a soothing and orderly presence in people’s lives. In addition, religion has been shown to provide a sense of hope and purpose, better abilities to withstand suffering and pain, create or guide people to solutions for conflict, solve struggles of mortality and death, give people a sense of power or control over the universe, help build self-care and altruistic habits, promote social interaction, offer a sense of belonging, and form rituals and habits that can be soothing and/or necessary to many (Schumaker 3). The potential positives are numerous and powerful.
In addition to religion's effect on the individual, the institution of religion can often act as a service to reach out to help people with mental health struggles. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship often have support groups for people of a certain faith (“Faith Support”). This can create a sense of community for people struggling with mental health, and help encourage them to go receive help. Oftentimes, a major concern with people struggling mentally but who refuse to receive help is feeling ostracized or feeling a lack of community. Support groups built around faith or built for people of a certain faith can solve those issues. NAMI has a list of religion-based support groups here.
At the same time, religion can play a negative role in a lot of people’s mental health. Certain studies have shown that religion can “generate unhealthy levels of guilt” (Schumaker 3). In addition, religion has been stated to promote low self-esteem if tenants of the religion contradict the nature of the person, cause emotional repression, create feelings of stress or fear due to punitive aspects of the religion (i.e. hell or eternal damnation), prevent personal growth or autonomy and create over-reliance on one group or authority, repress sexual feelings or expression, decrease societal tolerance, create paranoia, and hamper rational thought. (Schumaker 3-4).
Especially among minority groups, religion can have a negative impact (Estrada et al.). Many religions, due to their age and centuries of history, have complex relationships with queer communities or have been interpreted to harm people of color or people who belong to other religions. Religion not only has an individual effect but a societal ripple; in recent history, the number of hate crimes and religion-based violence has increased. There have been corresponding increases in fear among marginalized groups, such as Jewish, Muslim, and queer communities (Scheitle et al.).
Good or Bad?
It’s hard to say definitively what the net or overall impact of religion is on mental health. Harmful or beneficial? Good or bad? There are too many factors, and so many of those factors are incredibly personal. The most I can say as a humble blog post writer is that no matter your opinion on the effect of religion on mental health, you should have respect and kindness towards those who have a different opinion than you. Stopping religion-based violence starts from the smallest communities, not just actions by major organizations and important people. We can all take efforts to improve our mental health, and whether or not that happens through a religious service or not, or whether your mental health struggles are based on religious experiences or not, we can all still be kind to one another.
Estrada, Crystal Amiel m., et al. "Religious Education Can Contribute to Adolescent Mental Health in School Settings." International Journal of Mental Health Systems, vol. 13, no. 1, 26 Apr. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13033-019-0286-7.
"Faith Support Groups." NAMI, www.nami.org/Get-Involved/NAMI-FaithNet/Faith-Support-Groups. Accessed 31 Dec. 2022.
"Religion and Mental Health." 2022. NAMI Wilmington, 9 Aug. 2022, namiwilmington.org/religion-and-mental-health-2/. Accessed 31 Dec. 2022.
Scheitle, Christopher, et al. "Fear of Religious Hate Crime Victimization and the Residual Effects of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia." Social Forces, 16 Sept. 2022, https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soac100.
Schumaker, Joseph F., editor. Religion and Mental Health. Oxford UP, 1992. Google Books, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=oY0nsXwPJ3AC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=negative+effects+of+religion+on+mental+health&ots=8B8BgkbRny&sig=QhyavObzY_XTQzOVbQ4c_gDGnoQ#v=onepage&q=negative%20effects%20of%20religion%20on%20mental%20health&f=false. Accessed 31 Dec. 2022.