By Chris Hannay
Our mental health is influenced by myriad factors – social, biological, environmental and psychological, to name a few – and can then influence how we affect and our affected by others. High stress can play havoc with blood pressure, ability to sleep, parenting, interpersonal relations, and, in the most unfortunate cases, can lead to depression or suicide.
Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss faith’s response to mental health. Readers, if you choose to join the commentary, please do so with respect.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multi-faith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.
Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal.
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer ofContext with Lorna Dueck, on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time, and Vision TV, 9:30 a.m.
Moderator Chris Hannay is an online editor in The Globe and Mail’s news section. He might be agnostic.
Chris Hannay: Welcome, panel. While counselling and proper medical attention are key to keeping up mental health, what role can faith play in keeping us well?
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: From a Hindu perspective, faith is an important part of dealing with stress in our lives. Although medical help is essential, ultimately faith takes over and Hindus believe that faith is the ultimate source of comfort and strength in dealing with many challenges in life.
Lorna Dueck: Understanding our spiritual life as part of our response to mental health is important. Hope and love are the two responses that faith brings to both keeping us healthy. Those qualities are many layered, and to be applied in all health needs including mental health. I love what Jean Vanier says about this, “Wounded people …ask for only one thing: a heart that loves and commits itself to them, a heart full of hope.”
Howard Voss-Altman: In my pastoral work, I have found that people struggling with mental health issues often feel ashamed and are reluctant to embrace or affiliate with a religious community. Our goal, as clergy, is to create the kind of compassionate community where people feel welcomed and included, especially when they are struggling. Our communities should be an example of how to welcome the stranger. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it must be a priority – starting with the clergy.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: In response to Howard’s statement, I will say that many Hindus who struggle with mental health seek solace and comfort through religion, though not an intermediary like a priest, always.
Sheema Khan: Faith in the divine can help to alleviate stress, in many ways. In the Koran we are constantly reminded of a compassionate, merciful creator, who is closer to each individual, than anything or anyone else. That is, without any intermediary, one can always call upon God. This can help to alleviate personal isolation. Also, one key aspect of faith is hope – the view that things will get better, or as the Koran states, “With difficulty, comes ease.” And, we are reminded that life is a gift, from God. Furthermore, faith, combined with community, can also provide valuable resources to help individuals cope, as community relations should help to build a reservoir of empathy and compassion.
In a video for the song “A Land Called Paradise”, featuring American Muslim country and western singer Kareem Salama, a sample of messages by American Muslims are shown. One powerful clip shows a young man, with a gun, who then holds up a sign saying “Islam inhibits my suicidal thoughts.”
Michael W. Higgins: There is now abundant empirical evidence that spirituality and faith are major contributors to human well being, mental health, and indeed general happiness. The Royal Society of Psychiatry in Britain now has some 20-per-cent-plus of its members enrolled in the section on spirituality and psychiatry. In fact, we have a bit of an industry.
Lorna Dueck: Love and hope taken for granted, on the downside of this I do know in my evangelical tradition that pressures of “happy clappy Jesus has the victory” will sometimes compound suffering. It leaves those with mental illness feeling lonely, stigmatized and afraid to reach out for help or turn for medication. With the professionalization of this field, clergy have been moving more into partnerships with the medical community on depression and mental health.
Chris Hannay: Michael, how does spirituality influence the practice of psychiatry?
Michael W. Higgins: Psychiatrists have taken in some jurisdictions to creating a spiritual profile of their clients in order to better appreciate the complexity, richness and sometimes pathology that define their personal faith. Such a profile allows for a better appreciation of the constitutive role that faith plays in the life of the patient, neither diminishing its significance, marginalizing it, or dispensing with it during the process of healing.
Lorna Dueck: I think there are many instances in life where it is not enough to meditate the mental health challenge away. While I do believe that taking time to set our mind on scriptures and adjusting our identity to what God says about our humanity helps, there are many circumstances where this is far from enough. Relationships that stick with a person, that really go the second mile on asking, how can I love you, are an indispensable gift a faith community brings around a suffering person. Hearing stories from each other on which therapeutic help can be resourced, medication, practices, all these things need to available in a de-stigmatized environment of church community.
Sheema Khan: I think what Professor Higgins brings up is very important – a multi-disciplinary approach to mental health. Psychological and medical perspectives are essential. However, we should also include other aspects of an individual’s life – such as spirituality – as a means to treat the individual as a whole (mind, body and spirit).
Lorna’s points are well-taken too. Sometimes, religious expectations, or community expectations, can do far more harm than good. Those who are ready to pronounce judgments, or approach individuals without sensitivity, should really stay away. For many immigrant communities, mental health issues have carried negative connotations, and shame. Only recently has there been a greater push to de-stigmatize mental health issues (much like wider Canadian society), and find approaches that will help to alleviate suffering. A lot of education also needs to be done.
Howard Voss-Altman: Organized Jewish life has not been as responsive to mental health issues in our community. Our success as a minority group continues to reinforce the belief that our families enjoy perfect lives, without the maladies that other groups suffer from. As a result, Jews struggling with mental illness feel even further away from synagogue life, which tends to be family-oriented and celebratory. We must begin to overcome our internal façade of false perfection in order to recognize the isolation that many of our people experience.
Michael W. Higgins: There was a time, certainly, when mental health was so poorly understood — it is marginally better now — that people of faith tended to confine mental and emotional disorders to the realms of possession, rational imbalance, and obduracy. We don’t do that any more and we see medical science working with us rather than against us in the comprehensive undertaking that we call human integration.
Lorna Dueck: It was incredible to read of the House of Commons tackling the need over teen suicide recently, and you could hear the tenderness as MPs gave voice to the need. It reminded me of where healing begins. In taking the pain out of hiding. In a faith community that should be the first line of defence. A young girl I recently interviewed who struggled with the darkest thoughts in her mental health worried her clinical depression should be just prayed away by her Christian parents … until she discovered in talking with them, they actually wanted to do both, pray and medicate and get all the expertise they could find engaged on the crisis. Along with that, the mom did an incredible amount of time walking their daughter through Bible passages that remind us that God promises His guiding presence into our identity, and how to access it. It’s not a one stop fix at all.
Chris Hannay: How or why has mental health been stigmatized? Do you know of ways in which some communities have to tried to relieve that stigma?
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I believe that in every community, irrespective of religious differences, mental illness was stigmatized. People with mental illness were ostracized and thought of as unproductive members of society. However, with better education and change of social attitudes, we are now beginning to understand the problems better and have more compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.
Howard Voss-Altman: Religious communities are hardly different from other communities where fear and suspicion carry the day. Unlike a physical ailment or a disease, mental health issues are not so easily understood. There is still a belief that if people suffering from depression could only smile more and have a more positive, sunny outlook, they would be able to overcome the depression. In addition, religious communities thrive on social interaction, and when that social interaction is limited or undermined by mental health issues, the fabric of the community is threatened. It’s simply easier to restore the social order and ignore or dismiss the offending party.
Sheema Khan: I think the stigmatization depends on the culture. In North America, where individualism is prized, mental-health issues have been perceived as a sign of individual weakness – especially amongst men. In cultures where community norms are given greater weight, disabilities (whether physical or mental) have been viewed as an object of shame for the family, and thus, a sign of “lower” status. In either case, it is the feeling of “I/we can’t let others know, otherwise what will they think of me/us?” syndrome. Thus, many suffer in isolation, in silos. Perhaps the first step is breaking down the silos…
Howard Voss-Altman: We certainly experience that in the Jewish community. Mental illness, depression, suicide brings nothing but shame upon the family and the community. We are now moving past those attitudes, but this is only in recent years. We still suffer from the “what will the neighbours think” mentality.
Lorna Dueck: To pressure people into thinking “if you just have faith and pray more this will pass” doesn’t help. I do know there are Christian clinics and faith professionals for a variety of mental needs, and they are run off their feet. I think hearing clergy address mental health issues is important, and creating venues and discussions that set up how we can be helped by each other in this stress should be publicized. For example, last week I saw I notice in a church bulletin that someone needed help with their Alzheimer’s family member for two hours a day, and the church was paying that support out of its benevolent fund. Practical help that brings real hope when a need is permanent is the job of Christian love.
Chris Hannay: If these stigmatized feelings exist within many communities, is there any difference in how a faith community can address mental health issues, compared to another social network an individual may have? (Other friends and family not bound by faith, for example.)
Howard Voss-Altman: That’s a good question. While non-Orthodox Jews are not particularly reliant on prayers or intercessionary help, belonging to a community of meaning – a community organized for the purpose of exploring the sacred and the holy – can provide additional solace and comfort. It may be that the clergy has access to mental health professionals. It may be that someone else in the community is suffering as well and can be a source of information and counselling. It may be that meditations on healing and personal strife will provide some additional insight into their particular struggles. Many of our patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob, and particularly Isaac) suffered from intense sadness and depression, and some people may identify with their struggles and take comfort in them. One never knows where people will find support, but religious communities can potentially offer a unique response that might not be available from just a network of friends or family.
Sheema Khan: Well, it’s not just faith groups. When you have people coming together with a common reference point, then the issue will be addressed from within that context. For example, if you have a mental health group composed of Muslims, the reference point will be the Koran and authentic traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, as applied to contemporary challenges. If this group are primarily immigrants, then, other reference points will be brought in.
Lorna Dueck: There are two differences to me that stand out in faith community response to mental suffering. First, we are commanded not to duck it. We are beholden by our God to apply constant care to the suffering. Second, the facts of our faith remind us we are not dealing on human strength alone. Since God has promised to “never leave or forsake us”, we have a companion in suffering, it’s not just up to the support group I can put around myself, who, even the best of friends fail. So that’s when realizing our humanity and identity is intertwined with the reality of God gives us a difference in approaching mental health, we are still loved and cared for even if broken and lonely. One mental health passage in scripture I’ll claim is Psalm 23; “Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid for you are close beside me. Your rod and staff protect and comfort me.”
Howard Voss-Altman: While I certainly understand and appreciate Lorna’s theological reference to God as the “suffering servant,” my experience suggests that non-Orthodox Jews are not particularly comfortable with that metaphor. We hope and pray that God offers strength and hope to those who suffer, not because God is suffering too, but rather because God seeks healing and a return to our best selves, our real selves.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: As I stated earlier Hinduism is not an organized religion and I cannot therefore talk about a faith community. Although people are brought together during temple festivals there is no regular meeting of people to share their faith. Hence support for people will mental health can come from any group. The most important thing for a Hindu is to seek divine help directly and of course get comfort through the love and compassion of the family and friends.
Michael W. Higgins: I think that the complex issue of mental health and the rich mosaic of spirituality and its resources need to be part of a national and federal agenda. It will benefit all of us.
Lorna Dueck: I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the partnership between professional medical help, and the ordinary. Philip Yancey’s classic book Where is God When It Hurts documents how many people found their turn around moment to hope through some act of kindness, or some word of love spoken by not a professional, but just by someone speaking out of care and concern. It reminds us of the truth of I Corinthians 13 said Yancey, “that eloquent depiction love is what a suffering person needs: love, and not knowledge and wisdom. As is so often his pattern, God uses very ordinary people to bring about healing.” We need to keep looking for and encouraging that.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I will only say that it is important for teachers also to talk about these issues and guide students.
Chris Hannay: Thanks, all, for the participation in today’s panel.