Faith & Spirituality
As we learn more and more about the connections between the mind and body, it becomes clear that spirituality, religion and faith can help some individuals live well with mental health conditions. Some individuals and families turn to faith in times of crisis to help in their recovery while others find that spiritual practices help them continue to manage their mental health.
How Faith Can Help
Research has shown that for some, religion and individual spirituality can directly improve our physical and mental health.
One practice that has received a lot of attention is contemplative prayer and meditation. Many studies have found that 10-20 minutes of meditation twice a day causes what is called the "relaxation response": decreased metabolism, decreased heart rate, decreased breathing rate and slower, calmer brain waves.
The relaxation response was originally observed in practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, a form of Buddhist meditation, but subsequent research has found the relaxation response can result from other contemplative practices as well. The daily ritual prayers of Islam and the Catholic practice of praying with rosary beads, for instance, are religious rituals that invoke the relaxation response.
Religion offers other supports for mental health as well. In the United States, the Christian practice of congregational prayer is so popular that it now exists even in Asian religions such as American Buddhism and Hinduism, which didn't traditionally gather as a community once a week. One of the most popular ways to interact with the community is to attend congregational gatherings such as Sunday church, Saturday Torah readings, prayer meetings or full-moon celebrations at Hindu temples.
These group religious rituals provide structured social activities that cause relatively little anxiety and benefit our health directly. Places of worship may also offer a number of resources and social activities that can encourage and support people living with a mental health condition and their families, providing additional benefits through community connections
A Sense of Understanding
For some, the most important aspect of religion is that it offers ways to understand our experiences. The major world religions each offer explanations of why suffering exists in the world. Turning to these explanations brings comfort to many people confronting illness. The "why me?" question can never be answered entirely by medical science, and some people find the answers they seek in religion.
Relatively recent research suggests that we experience direct health benefits when we volunteer to help others. Religious organizations may provide us with straightforward, simple opportunities to serve the community, thus improving our mood and reducing our anxiety levels.
What Makes a Good Faith Community?
A Welcoming Community
Each world religion has its own set of ideas and practices. If you grew up in a specific faith and feel comfortable with it, you may already have prayers and rituals that support your health.
If you feel alienated from your faith of origin, you may feel uncertain whether you can benefit from faith. Just as there isn't a downside to learning more about your mental health condition, there's no downside to learning more about religion or spirituality. Learning about a faith doesn't obligate you to follow it and may give you new ideas for how to live with a mental health condition.
If you're looking for a regular place to worship or practice your faith, be alert to how each congregation or community approaches mental health conditions. Some churches view mental illness as a moral failing for which prayer is the only treatment while others maintain active outreach programs for people with mental health conditions. Above all, find a community where you feel welcomed and loved despite your mental health condition. Finding a caring congregation that is accepting and supports your healing journey is key.
Actions That You Practice On Your Own
The benefits of religion don't end at the steps. The most powerful health benefits of religion may come from simple contemplative practices that invoke the relaxation response. Some find great comfort and peace in spiritual practices of surrender and contemplation on meaning and purpose. You can encourage these rituals into your daily routine at home.
Learn more about your faith's contemplative practices from faith leaders, friends in the faith, Internet websites or library books. You will find many possibilities: saying the rosary (Catholicism), meditating on Bible passages (Protestant Christianity), observing daily mitzvoth (Judaism), making time for the five prayers (Islam), performing puja (Hinduism), or chanting the "Nam myoho renge kyo" (Nichiren Buddhism).
Looking for new ways to practice your spirituality or religion can give you valuable tools for times of sorrow or frustration. Ways to practice your faith outside of a congregation include reading scripture, visiting sacred sites, learning about important people in your religion, listening to sacred music, engaging in private prayer and attending prayer or discussion groups.
It Speaks to Your Needs
If you don't feel comfortable with organized religion, you can still access the benefits of relaxation and find meaning in your experiences. Think of places, people and experiences that give you feelings of peace, awe or greater meaning.
Some might find their greater meaning outside in nature, or in an art gallery, or while listening to a piece of beloved music. Others may find comfort in reading poetry, or in learning about science or history. Whatever your interests are, by pursuing them you can give your mind a valuable "time out" from thinking about your mental health and invite moments of peace to your experience
How You Can Help Your Faith Community
Faith communities have begun paying attention to mental health, but they may have misconceptions about the issues. Your faith community may be unsure how to help. A good place to begin engaging them is by meeting privately with your pastor, priest or religious leader and telling them about the questions and challenges you have as a person of faith living with a mental health condition.
If you're comfortable sharing with a wider group, you can teach your faith community about mental health through starting a discussion group or support group. You can also reach out to your local NAMI Affiliate as many have relationships with their area faith communities that may provide some benefit.
By being open about your mental health, you may help others in your community who have been afraid to talk about their mental health. Starting this conversation creates a stronger, healthier, more compassionate community.
Tools and Resources for Faith Community Leaders
NAMI FaithNet is a network of NAMI members and friends dedicated to promoting caring faith communities and promoting the role of faith in recovery for individuals and families affected by mental illness. Visit NAMI FaithNet for more information on how you can promote the role of faith in recovery.