As Science Sees It: Spiritual Focus Protects Mental Health

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Lisa Miller, a psychologist on faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University, talked with the Wall Street Journal about what her research is discovering about the mental health benefits of spiritual practices.

“Strong spiritual awareness protects against despair, addiction, depression, and even suicidality.” Lisa Miller, psychologist, Columbia University, in @wsj

“Hundreds of scientific peer-reviewed articles have found that a strong spiritual awareness protects against the most prevalent forms of inner suffering: the diseases of despair, addiction, depression, and even suicidality,” she told the Journal. “The data has also shown that character strengths and virtues such as optimism, grit, commitment and forgiveness go hand-in-hand with strong spiritual awareness.”

Even more strikingly, she said, spiritual growth is dependent on experiencing difficulties.

“There are specific life challenges that help us develop spiritually. If someone dies. If someone gets ill. A divorce. The birth of a child.”

Read more in the Wall Street Journal.

Miller’s newest book is The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. Among her research of interest: Barton, Y., Miller, L., Wickmaratne, P., Weissman, M. (2013).  Religious Attendance and Social Adjustment as Protective Against Depression: A Ten-Year Prospective Study.  Journal of Affective Disorders, (1), 53-57. “Conclusions: Frequent religious attendance may protect against major depression, independent from the effects of social adjustment.”

“Frequent religious attendance may protect against major depression.” Conclusion from actual scientific research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. 2013

Reimagine Mental Health: Treat Causes, Not Crises

While a massive advocacy campaign begins this week to gain funding for even more mental health crisis services, I wonder: why we would keep building a system that’s so clearly failing people in crisis?

This week, a wide coalition of national organizations is encouraging us to Reimagine how we support people in emotional crisis. They recommend expanding the current crisis call and text systems, establishing local crisis teams for in-person response to callers, and creating new crisis stabilization settings to replace mental health crisis trips to emergency rooms.

This week’s efforts are the speartip of a nationwide lobbying campaign that’s being piggybacked on next July’s rollout of the 988 national mental health crisis phone number. 988 would work similarly to 911. The difference is that mental health crisis services are less widely dispersed than other emergency supports.

man talking on phone
Crisis call and text services give access to trained volunteers or staff anywhere, anytime. (In the US, call 800-273-8255, or text HOME to 741741)

If you call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline today (800-273-8255), you may be switched to a nearby call center or you may talk to someone hundreds of miles away. That’s fine because training for lifeline volunteers is pretty consistent nationwide.

Crisis line volunteers let you know, by their words and their presence, that you’re not alone. They listen with compassion. Try to make sure you’re not planning to kill yourself today. Encourage you to think about any person that you could connect with. And then they’ll help you think of something you might do after you get off the phone, because seeing a possible future is part of the definition of hope, even if that future is as simple as tea and toast and a purring kitty.

The lifeline systems work. I know from experience. A person in a crisis needs reminding that she’s not alone (she belongs), she is important enough to be heard (she has value), her life matters – even if right now it’s just to the cat who wants to be fed (she lives with meaning and purpose), and that there is a future beyond this dark moment (she can hope). When she gets those five things, she can usually live to another day.

The US Suicide Rate Keeps Rising.
What We’re Doing Isn’t Working.

The coalition wants to make sure that we have more crisis services to prevent more suicide deaths. The question is: Will more crisis services help? Here’s the most important thing to know about US suicide deaths in the last 20 years:

The US suicide rate rose one-third from 1999-2017.

The global suicide rate dropped by a third in roughly the same time.

In 20 years, the US suicide rate has risen by a third while the global rate has dropped by a third. Whatever we’re doing to prevent suicide in the US is almost exactly wrong.

It would seem that whatever we’re doing to prevent suicide in the US is almost exactly wrong. So why would we choose to REIMAGINE mental health supports by providing more of almost exactly the same – more services to intervene at crisis moments instead of more community supports that would avert crises?

To be clear, in the US we provide significantly more ongoing mental health services today than we did in 1999. Almost 1 in 5 of us receives professional mental health care; 1 in 6 takes psychiatric medications. And still our rates of mental health crisis and attributed deaths – by suicide and also by drug overdose – have risen.

Global Suicide Rates are Dropping.
Could We Learn from What’s Working Elsewhere?

While our rate of these “deaths by despair” continues to rise, the global suicide rate has been dropping, in part because other nations take seriously people’s own explanations for their distress. Japan changed its laws so creditors couldn’t collect on life insurance policies after a suicide. Collection agencies had been quite literally hounding debtors to death. Zimbabwe, short on professional therapists, trained a small army of “grandmothers on benches” to listen to those who had no one else’s ear.

When people long for a decent job or good friends, what is more likely to help: a weekly hour with a costly therapist, expensive psychiatric medicines, or a good job and good friends?

We, too, could listen to the cries of the hearts around us to create change. When people long for a decent job or good friends, what is more likely to help: a weekly hour with a costly therapist, expensive psychiatric medicines, or a good job and good friends? In our work and relationships, we find meaning, belonging, purpose, value and hope. We may find them in union halls or community businesses, in faith communities or neighborhood associations, in the bar or the park where we “always” go.

Not Quite Fine book

We find our mental health and proactively avert mental health crises as we live with and for one another. That is how we best “reimagine” mental health supports.

Read more about the mental health benefits of meaning, purpose, belonging, value and hope in Not Quite Fine: Mental Health, Faith and Showing Up for One Another, now available on Herald Press.

A Blessing for Those Who Have No Choice

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I don’t write poetry or even read it, but for some reason in the last month I’ve been gifted four volumes of poems. And my tentative dips into them revived my memory of the way poems can carry a huge weight of thought and feeling in a dense mass of just a few carefully chosen words.

So when I tried to write about my friend’s involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, I couldn’t find any way to shape my thoughts but a poem.

FREE! Evidence-based Mental Health Resources for Churches

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You know how you sometimes stumble across stuff you can’t even imagine exists? I recently discovered a wealth of excellent free resources mental health resources at Everett Worthington‘s website at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Worthington is an emeritus professor of psychology whose specialty is in the universe called “positive psychology.” That is to say: his research focuses on how we live at our best, not the range of difficulties we sometimes encounter.

A lot of “positive psychology” rubs me the wrong way. I generally find myself nodding along with Barbara Ehrenreich, who describes enforced optimism as an addictive drug whose highs drive us to dangerous and unwise choices, both as individuals and as a culture.

So imagine my surprise when I found a set of resources that were born in the “positive psychology” universe and were actually helpful. In the course of researching my own upcoming book on how churches can best support people with mental health diagnoses, I discovered Worthington’s helpful, evidence-based mental health resources developed for churches and Christian organizations. And they’re distributed free.

Worthington’s own research, over his long professional career, has included studying how people succeed in forgiving others and in cultivating such virtues as humility and patience. He’s written more than 20 books published on conservative Christian houses such as Intervarsity Press and Baker Books and by the highly regarded Templeton Foundation for religion research. The most recent of these, The Science of Forgiveness (April 2020) is a 58-page review of academic research studies on forgiveness designed to assist news reporters.

Worthington is committed to free distribution of his ideas, in the old academic tradition. Once he’s established, through adequate peer-reviewed research, that an approach works, he offers the workbooks as shareables for DIY counseling or peer-led groups.

I’ve been working through one of the books, and really appreciate it. Part of what surprises me is that the self-directed approach seems mostly more effective for me than in-person counseling — maybe because I can stop processing a difficult experience when it overwhelms and then return later, with no need to think about fully utilizing my 50-minute appointment.

I’m also appreciative that I can recognize in this workbook some strategies used by Christians worldwide to successfully overcome anger and unforgiveness. So, for instance, one exercise that Worthington prescribes for releasing unforgiveness is also described in Liberian war refugee Marcus Doe’s memoir Catching Ricebirds. That is to say: it is part of a forgiveness “toolkit” that is well-established in long-standing, global Christian practice.

Learn more at Everett Worthington’s website, and download some of his FREE evidence-based tools now to cultivate forgiveness, patience, and humility in your life.

PS: Don’t be fooled! Not by the lack of marketing. Or the fact that he gives them away for free. Or even the covers that look more like your church bulletin than a serious mental health tool. These are the real deal. Go to his website and download one to try today!

‘Psychiatry needs to get right with God’

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Believe it or not, that’s the title of an article that appeared last week in Scientific American.

It seems that the scientific evidence from the pandemic year is confirming what some mental health researchers have been demonstrating for a couple decades. Religious faith is good for your mental health. And people suffering from mental health problems want to talk about spiritual things. Even when they’re talking with their (generally secular) psychiatrists.

The article reports on a project by the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. In this effort, mental health clinical professionals were trained to discuss spirituality with patients in the course of treatment. During the year-long trial, more than 90 percent of participating patients reported benefits. And remarkably, that’s even though almost 40 percent of participating patients described themselves as nonreligious. Also remarkably, the clinicians who had the most success using this strategy were those not religiously affiliated.

A poignant case history makes the point: a woman suffering from severe depression and anxiety improved significantly after just three sessions exploring her beliefs in God and in the idea that she had been given this life for a purpose. Focusing on these beliefs helped her to find hope which began to relieve her depression.

Hope is the foundation of all mental health recovery.

That squares with what the mental health recovery community teaches us (hope is the foundation of all recovery). It also aligns with what I describe in my forthcoming book: that congregations can build their mental health ministries on the spiritual basics of meaning, belonging, purpose, value and hope. The miracle that is recovery comes when we find ourselves to be people who are valued, who belong to a group that helps us see the meaning of our life and the purpose for our next steps. And each step taken toward that purpose is a step forward in hope.

Hope empowers us to take the next step, even when the destination is far from view. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

By the way, having demonstrated how helpful spiritual counsel is to mental health, study principal investigator David Rosmarin also points out that only a miniscule portion of mental health research in the US addresses spiritual concerns. Let’s hope that he and others who have been attempting to build out this research specialty over the last couple of decades will gain some traction with funders at long last.

Depressed? Or Overburdened?

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The cartoonist makes an interesting point. Is the sufferer depressed or has he just been bowled over by a giant boulder that he can’t possibly move on his own? And what will be best for him (or her)? A depression diagnosis or help moving the rock?

COVID has bowled lots of people over. Lots of us are trying to cope using strategies that also could be interpreted as symptoms of depression: eating too much (gaining the Quarantine 19), streaming too much (more than six hours a day), sleeping too little (leading to the new term “coronasomnia“), giving up on our plans in the face of what seem unending, unpredictable changes that make the future impossible to predict.

Mental health experts diagnosed a surge of depression early in the pandemic. Many of us have sought professional help, some for the first time, since COVID began to challenge us all.

But are we really suffering from collective depression? Or do we all just need more help moving the COVID boulder?

What do you think? Has COVID left any “boulders” in your path? On top of you? What do you think might help?