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.
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.
Don’t you love this Easter picture? A neighbor shared it with me after a young friend e-mailed it to her. Without any words, the picture tells a wonderful story about what matters to the young artist.
At right, we see the family home. Its shape and size are a bit skewed because this child still struggles with perspective. Is the house one story high? Three stories? Are those dormer windows in the roof? The child pays little attention to the architectural details her skills can’t illustrate. Instead, she focuses on filling each window with a warm yellow and pink glow and carefully placing a puff of smoke above the chimney. Whatever the house may look like in the real world, the child shows us a cozy home with a fire on the hearth.
At center, a tree stands nearly twice as tall as the house. Some trees are actually much taller than houses, but this is an apple tree and they don’t typically grow very high. Three apples dangle from its branches toward the ground — out of reach but hugely appealing. They’re so appealing to the artist that they are drawn as large as the house’s windows. But the tree’s gigantic trunk stands like a pillar, holding the tree’s leafy crown and tempting fruit far away from the diminutive artist, even though they dangle tantalizingly within view.
At left, the artist gives us the sun and a single elaborately decorated Easter egg. All the rest of the picture is truly just backstory to this glorious egg. It’s taller than the tree, maybe five times the size of the house. It reaches nearly to the sun, every inch covered with row on row of carefully detailed decoration. This wonderful egg is the child’s story of the family Easter. Is it an egg she found? An egg she decorated? Her own imagination of the best egg there could be? We don’t know. We just know that the egg is the important thing. It’s what she has focused on, and it is therefore what she has focused on in her drawing.
Our Giant Egg: Whatever We Focus On
In the same way that this youngster’s enthusiastic focus has exaggerated the size of her egg, we also are prone to overemphasize anything we focus on. Marketers use this tendency to their advantage. They even have a name for it: the focusing illusion.
The focusing illusion describes the way we can be encouraged to focus our attention on just one particular aspect of a product so we are more likely to buy on the basis of that characteristic alone. If a particular sofa is both very comfortable and very expensive, marketers can sell more of them by focusing our attention on comfort instead of any price considerations we might have. Sometimes they do this in ways that are easy to deconstruct — ads that show a parent and child cuddled together on the sofa, or an adult crashed out on the sofa under a handmade afghan. Other times, the focusing trick may be less obvious. One widely reported marketing test found that buyers would become focused on comfort if sofa ads included pictures of fluffy clouds.
What makes this an illusion is the mental sleight-of-hand it uses. The focusing illusion draws our attention to a single issue and distracts us from other concerns we bring to the buying decision. Like a magician who waves a handkerchief with one hand while dislodging a concealed coin with the other, the marketer focuses us on a single issue to distract us from other concerns. That makes it easier to dislodge the coin from our pockets.
When Mental Illness Becomes the Focus
What does this have to do with mental health?
Think for a minute about what comes to mind when you hear the phrase “mental health.”
In the 21st century West, the words “mental health” are less likely to conjure the ordinary strengths of the ordinary capable people you know than to focus your attention on “mental illness.” Mental illness is what you read about in newspapers and magazines, see in the movies, learn about in school and community educational campaigns, watch ads about. You know names for a number of “mental illnesses” — depression, bipolar disorder, general anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder. You know about “toxic personalities” and “narcissists.” You have learned that pills can provide relief from mental illnesses, and you’ve tuned out the soothing hum of listed side effects at the end of the TV commercials. You may even have learned a list of suicide precursors that you review anxiously every time your child yells, “I can’t stand this! I wish I was dead!”
Your mind has been refocused from the idea that mental health is the norm for most people — an ordinary way of life that we learn from each other’s strengths, sufferings, struggles and successes. You’re now focused on the idea that difficulties are mental illnesses, they are everywhere, and they require professional treatment.
And the professionals who do the research, provide treatment, advertise treatments and advocate for treatment funding have encouraged this focus. In the 70-some years since my mother’s Aunt Bessie was sent away to a psychiatric hospital in Maine, the proportion of the US population believed to suffer during our lifetime from what we call “mental illnesses” has mushroomed from less than 1 percent to roughly half.
Refocus: Churches Can Support Mental Health
Mental illnesses and their professional treatments have become the giant Easter egg in our thinking about ordinary suffering and mental health problems. The ordinary, healthful life represented by the child’s apple tree is appealing, but its fruit seems out of reach. And while we’re aware of the cozy warmth we can find in relationship with those to whom we belong, that idea is crowded away into a cramped corner of our imagination.
A sense of belonging is, however, a core element of good mental health. And belonging is one of the key attributes of a good church community.
Healthy living — good foods, appropriate exercise, meaningful work, living in accord with our sense of purpose — is also essential to mental health. All of these fall readily under the umbrella of good Christian living, something our congregations can nurture in us all.
What churches aren’t equipped to do is deal with long lists of diagnoses and brilliantly colored assortments of pills. And that’s fine. Because those are much less essential to mental health than our current, illusory focus would seem to make them. We’ve become focused on identifying one of hundreds of mental illness diagnostic labels for emotional pain and pushing the sufferer toward palliative medicines. In so doing, we’ve lost focus on the many gifts God has provided us to support one another in good mental health.
In this season of Easter celebration, let’s stay focused on what brings us life. Meaning, belonging, purpose, value, and hope — these are the tools we as God’s people use to support mental health in one another. Medicines and diagnoses have their place, but their place must be shrunk to an appropriate size in our thinking. Like the child’s giant Easter egg, they must not take over the place that warm relationships and healthy living are intended to fill.
Who wouldn’t love to be more patient by next week? More forgiving in just 6 hours? All without leaving home or paying a cent. These evidence-based, free downloadable workbooks could be as transformative for you as they are for me.
Everett Worthington, Jr., a Christian and a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has spent much of his career developing an evidence base for how good character can be formed. Over decades, his teams developed and tested workbooks that can be used by individuals or in groups. Although developed in a secular realm, these function as great DIY discipleship for Christian character formation.
Worthington describes his personal mission as to help every heart (individuals), every home (couples and families), and every homeland (communities and countries) to forgive. His professional studies in forgiveness, as a psychologist, began in 1990 after many years work in couples therapy. His Campaign for Forgiveness Research awarded more than $6 million in grants to studies researching forgiveness. He mentored researchers worldwide.
Worthington’s personal mission is to help every heart, every home, and every homeland to forgive.
After his mother was murdered in 1996, Worthington’s thinking became both more expansive and more personal. The emotional impact, even after forgiving the killer, was tremendous. Self-forgiveness became a new research interest. At the same time, his writing began to relate the personal experience of forgiveness to the larger concerns of justice, faith, and virtue.
DIY Discipleship in Christian Character
I’ve found a lot of value as I worked through the six-hour The Path to Forgiveness workbook. For me, the benefits of Worthington’s approach included these:
Pat Deegan, who has schizophrenia, owns a mental health consulting firm and teaches at Dartmouth medical school. She recently blogged about “being normal.” For us of faith, the crux comes when she describes what “recovery” from a “mental illness” should look like:
… recovery is not about becoming normal. The goal of recovery is to become the precious gift that we were born to become. …The goal of our recovery is to become the unique, never-to-be repeated gift that we are.
‘Soteria‘ is a Greek word for deliverance or salvation (rescue) that many of us know from the New Testament. It popped up in my feed this week as the name of a non-religious mental health nonprofit in Hungary.
Soteria Shelter takes the perspective that life difficulties happen to everyone, and all people in difficulty deserve kind, generous help.Dániel Ács writes:
We are together in order to help the people in crisis by means of our presence. Our ethical motto is: “It can happen to you, too.” This change of aspect puts our thinking in a new light: What if we were to get into trouble? How would we feel? Who or what would be good for us?
This makes Soteria Shelter an embracing community, in the tradition of what we best desire our congregations to be. Read more about this project and imagine how the people of your church could become a true place of soteria for those in emotional crisis.