Faith and Mental Health: Part 1, The Connection?

My writing and speaking over the last few years has drawn me into thinking more about the relationship between faith and mental health. You'll see this reflected in many locations in Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering and Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age when it comes out. 

This is, perhaps surprisingly, a new area of reflection for me. As a psychologist, you'd think I'd have thought about this issue a lot. But my early reflections were more about social psychology (Unclean) and existential psychology (The Authenticity of Faith, The Slavery of Death) than about clinical or counseling psychology.

But the positive argument I made in The Slavery of Death, which I see as addressing many of the hanging questions from The Authenticity of Faith, did cause me to reflect on how faith impacts neurotic anxiety. And as I've pressed on from that beginning, I have been reflecting more and more on the relationship between faith and mental well-being. Again, some of this reflection will show up in Hunting Magic Eels, parts of which I see as extending the insights started in The Slavery of Death.

So, a few posts sketching out some reflections on the relationship between faith and mental health.

Let's start at the beginning: What is the relationship between a mature spiritual relationship with God and emotional well-being? 

The answers you get to this question tend to be diverse and even paradoxical. For example, when I introduce this topic to my students I start by asking them two questions:

First, raise your hand if you think a mature spiritual relationship with God has mental health benefits?

All the hands go up.

Second, raise your hand if you think a mature Christian can suffer from depression?

These are psychology majors, so almost all of the hands go back up.

Having elicited these responses, I then ask the obvious question: How can both of those things be true? 

On the one hand, we seem convinced that a deeper, fuller, and richer relationship with God will create greater well-being, greater joy, peace, courage, strength, hope, and psychological resiliency. And there is ample empirical evidence to back up this connection. The studies are clear: religious people are among the happiest people in the world. 

But on the other hand, we also know that some of the best Christians in our lives, perhaps even you yourself, struggle with mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and so on. Faith, even a strong faith, doesn't make you immune to psychological problems. You can be a mature Christian and struggle with mental health issues.

Thus the issue, and even the paradox. There does seem to be a connection between faith and mental health, but the connection isn't as clear and straightforward as we might first assume.

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