Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.
Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Credit: cc by Gianfranco Blanco via Flickr

It is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, preparing the home and hearth for the arrival of the Messiah. The gifts, the music and the parties promise to make the Christmas season bright. Still, for many in our congregations, this time of year can be one of the most difficult, whether it is due to the loss of a loved one, loneliness or general hardship. It can be a season of darkness rather than light for many.

The idea that depression is prevalent in the pews just as it is in society is only just beginning to be discussed widely. Emerging also is the research into how religion can play a powerful role in eliminating the societal stigma of mental illness in addition to becoming a source of solace for those suffering in silence.

For Marti Priest it was the realization that her genetic make-up included the likelihood of depression that was part of her personal breakthrough. And as she began to speak more freely in her Minneapolis ELCA congregation, it was evident that she had supporters surrounding her on any given Sunday.

“The world itself stigmatizes mental illness,” she says. “The church is vastly different than that and loves me no matter what.”

She was volunteering in her church, but the high degree to which she was giving of her time was a sign of the mania common in bipolar disorder, she says in hindsight. It still took some time to “come out” to those with whom she served with on church committees and she adds that she was immediately met with a response of surprise – “Oh you?” The support, however, was there even as she told her pastor of her diagnosis and how she needed to back away from some of her commitments in order to gain more “balance” in her life. “My pastor was really cool about it,” she recalls. “When I stepped down I had a health reason and that made it easier.”

This is not new. Martin Luther is thought to have suffered from depression or at the very least severe anxiety and melancholy, quite clearly in older age if not before. A Patheos blog post earlier this year by Catholic author and apologist David Armstrong points to some historians’ findings on Luther’s spiritual anxiety. In his article, Armstrong questions whether these periodic troubles may have had some physical basis. Armstrong quotes findings of scholars Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz and Roland Bainton in describing Luther’s suffering and struggle against bouts of “persistent maladies.”

Luther is quoted as saying, “I more fear what is within me than what comes from without.” But in true fashion to what many of us may experience in the ups and downs of life, he cited hope about God’s future with such strengthen that he legendarily said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

We will likely never know whether Luther suffered from clinical depression, but what we do know is a rising number of the US population does today.

Mental Health America (MHA), a long-time, community-based nonprofit dedicated to helping Americans to live mentally healthier lives, has completed one of the most ambitious mental health screening programs ever launched. Nearing almost 1 million depression screens being completed, the group reported almost 1,400 people screen for depression daily of which 66% are under 25 and in total 59% are found to have serious depression.

Approximately 32% of all screeners report that they have significant thoughts of suicide or self-harm. And at risk are those who self-identify as youth and LGBT, 41% of which score for severe depression. Experts say the numbers of individuals seeking help is rising.

“The sheer volume of individuals seeking mental health screening and supports is astonishing,” said Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of MHA in a press release. “But when you couple this volume with these facts – that the depression screening tool is the most common screening tool they use; that most depression screeners are young; that two in every five depression screeners have severe depression; and that the majority of people coming to our screening program have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition—this is a national wake-up call.”

He says that there needs to be better mental health services. Practitioners, employers and educators need to offer mental health screening to all children and adults, and policy makers must pass meaningful mental health reform legislation that emphasizes earlier detection and integrated services for recovery, experts say.

So the key question remains about what roles faith communities can play in supporting those with mental illness and in encouraging mental health generally.  Many of these roles are highlighted in the ELCA social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness, which has been cited as one of the clearest and fullest statements by a Christian denomination.”  (Visit to see this message.)

From a social science point of view, a recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that women who attended religious services had a lower risk of suicide compared with women who never attended services. The study was done using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and included nearly 90,000 women and self-reported attendance at religious services.

Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D. of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and co-authors looked at the association between religious service attendance and suicide from 1996 through June 2010. Among the women, most were Catholic or Protestant. There were 36 suicides during the period. Compared with women who never attended services, women who attended once per week or more had a five times lower risk of subsequent suicide, according to the study.

The authors note their study used observational data so, despite adjustment for possible confounding factors, it still could be subject to confounding by personality, impulsivity, feeling of hopelessness or other cognitive factors. The authors also note women in the study sample were mainly white Christians and female nurses, which can limit the study’s generalizability.

“Our results do not imply that health care providers should prescribe attendance at religious services. However, for patients who are already religious, service attendance might be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate,” the study concludes.

While it may not be enough data to support any concrete conclusions, it is not the only study to ask whether faith can be of some aid to mental health.

A group founded several years ago at the University of Chicago – The Chicago Social Brain Network – has closely studied how belief in God impacts an individual’s mental state. The network is a group of more than a dozen scholars from the neurosciences, behavioral sciences, social sciences and humanities who share an interest in who we are as a species and the role of biological and social factors in shaping of individuals, institutions and societies across human history.

“Theology and religion have always relied on unseen forces as the basis for explanations of human behavior and experience,” write researchers in the preface to the book Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs, published in 2011. They add, “Science has been able to explicate those forces even if along different lines than originally conceived. As we start to consider some of the more complex aspects of human nature, science and theology may be able to work together to shed light on some of these complexities.”

The team of researchers outline a number of interesting findings in the book and say that because Christians view themselves as creatures of God, they feel related to God whatever happens. They remain in relationship with God, no matter how abandoned they may feel by others. Kathryn Tanner of the University of Chicago Divinity School was the lead researcher on this portion of the project and found that Christians can “always avail themselves of a completely counterfactual sense of social connection with the best connected ‘superfriend’ of all: the God who remains, they believe, in a relationship of ultimately beneficial causal efficacy with not just themselves, but everyone and everything.”

These are indeed powerful beliefs, researchers say. On a more practical level, it is an idea that keeps Christians like Priest motivated on a journey of faith. For her, the church has become her family. “In church there is a level of intimacy and a level of trust that you may not have even with your friends,” she says. “There is a vulnerability there.”

At St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in the Quad Cities, there is a specific mental health ministry that operates with the understanding that among people worshiping in any American church up to 25% are likely touched by mental illness. It may be a person in the pew, a family member or a friend.

Pastor Sara Olson-Smith says the Mental Health Awareness team meets regularly and partners with the local National Awareness of Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter and other professionals in providing learning opportunities.

St. Paul’s has been involved for nearly two decades with a local mental health care organization (Vera French) to use a home on the church’s property as a home for people living with chronic mental health issues.

The Mental Health Awareness Team effort was led by Anna Goodwin, who worked doing faith formation on the church’s staff and had done her master’s work in the area of mental health, Pastor Olson-Smith recalls.

“She has done a lot of work over a decade to help create caring congregations for people living with mental illness, teaching congregational leaders/clergy about mental illness and to foster awareness, learning and circles of care,” she says.

The church congregation, in partnership with the local NAMI chapter holds Family-to-Family sessions, or Peer-to-Peer sessions at the church that are open to those in the congregation and the community. Members also participate in the NAMI fundraising/awareness raising walk and have hosted a Mental Health First Aid Course.

The greatest thing the team has done, according to Olson-Smith has been to organize monthly learning events. It may be a panel discussion on a weeknight, which draws a wide variety of people around topics like depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide etc. They also have speakers from the community come to teach on Sunday mornings, about a whole variety of topics. Every July, St. Paul’s hosts a movie series featuring films that deal with mental illness and that is followed by a discussion.

“I do believe we’ve made an impact on people’s lives,” Pastor Olson-Smith says. “I pray that we are breaking down stigma, and also giving people some tools as they live with mental illness, or care for the people they love with mental illness.”

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