By Martha Rodriguez, LCSW
My faith is what saved me when I was struggling with depression. I called on God, and he heard me and never let me go. Praying and meditating on his word are my coping mechanisms. It is he who gives me strength to get through the bad days and appreciate the good ones.
I have always had faith, and like many individuals, sought out and relied on religious leaders when struggling with mental health issues. But to some this can be taboo, and many will even dismiss using faith and a belief system in combination with psychotherapy.
I believe this is considered taboo for a few reasons. First, some people may believe that faith and religion have no role or value in therapy, and religious leaders can discourage members from seeking professional help. Also, some people believe that mental illness is a way in which God tests your faith, or that you just have to let it go and leave it to God. And lastly, there is the worry that if you ask for help you may face judgement, be ignored, or told that you “lack faith.”
But for me, as a Christian, I believe that God wants you to trust him and have faith, but to also use the resources that are available to you to get help. I still look to my religious leaders, such as my pastor, when I am having a bad day. But I also combine this guidance with the skills I learned in psychotherapy.
Religious leaders often find out first about issues affecting families. All they need is education and awareness on mental health and mental illness and they would be better equipped to help. If opportunities are created to dispel the faith and mental health taboo, religious leaders can use their roles to improve access to services. Therapists should also work to become more knowledgeable about how religion and faith can support those with mental illness. These discussions will improve treatment outcomes by building trust and understanding between the therapist and patient.
I searched for some time before I found a mental health professional who was competent and knowledgeable in my faith and religious beliefs. This individual knew the value and significance of these systems in my life and supported them.
We acknowledged, discussed and processed any misbeliefs and misconceptions that might have posed as a barrier to the success of my treatment. When I first looked to treatment, I thought I would not be able share my beliefs regarding my faith. But ultimately, I was able to talk about the feelings of guilt I had because my therapist was willing to understand them in the context of my religious background. For example, I felt like I was doing something wrong by seeking therapy, that I was putting God second, or that professional help was against Gods will.
We even talked about the misconception that a therapist would laugh or believe I was foolish if I thought my faith and religion could help me treat my condition. We explored the misbelief that my religion would be questioned and the idea that some therapists even consider religion to be a symptom of mental illness. If I hadn’t explored and processed these thoughts, they would have certainly served as barriers to the success of my treatment.
My therapist provided education in a manner that was engaging and non-offending. As I learned about what therapy really was, and what is was not, I was able to see how both my faith and therapy could help me heal and cope with my symptoms. This psychotherapist did not judge me. She listened and cared enough to understand my beliefs.
It was not like my therapist made my religion and spirituality the primary focus of my treatment; rather, it was combined with psychotherapy. She understood how my faith informed my life, decisions and values. I was encouraged to continue with the emotional support offered by my church. My faith provided me with hope — a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I was going to get through this because God was with me. Therapy provided me with validation and specific ways to cope.
My therapist and I talked about some of my favorite Bible passages and how they helped me manage my symptoms. To reduce social isolation, she encouraged me to engage with and participate in my church social groups.
It is no surprise that my religious beliefs also allowed me to look at things differently — things that did not work out or that I might have blamed myself for. I let them go because I believed that God had control over them. This helped me to cope during times in which I felt anxious about something or like I might lose control. My therapist also allowed me to use the idea in my treatment and listened as I processed difficult moments. Through some cognitive behavioral techniques, I was able to understand my negative thinking patterns and other things I did that were not helpful to my well-being.
Research suggests that religion and spirituality may build resilience when facing depressive episodes. This has been my experience. My resilience grows as I get through each additional episode. No moment was the same and some were really hard. But what remained constant was my spiritual and religious belief that God was in control. God was protecting me and would not leave me.
The belief that things were going to improve helped me reduce my feelings of despair and hopelessness. These positive thoughts and strong social supports offered by my religion and spirituality helped me build resilience against the negative feelings of depression and often stopped them right before they started.
We should focus on the positive coping mechanisms that are offered through religion and spiritual practices and the impact of religious and faith-based community supports for people with mental illness.
As we work towards removing the stigma surrounding mental health and improving access to services, we should also work with faith-based and religious communities to improve communication, educate about issues surrounding religion and mental illness and build a bridge that will connect the two.
Martha Rodriguez is a licensed clinical social worker. She received her MSW degree from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University in New York City. She provides psychotherapy for individuals, couples, families and groups.
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