Faith and Mental Health: Part 2, Avoiding Extreme Views

Before getting into what I think are proper ways of thinking about the relationship between faith and mental health, I want to mention some extreme views that aren't as helpful.

On the one hand are a suite of views that wholly reduce mental illness to spiritual problems. In the world of pastoral counseling this view was most visibly articulated by Jay Adams in his 1970's book Competent to Counsel, which helped establish the field known as "biblical counseling." You also see this view at work within the prosperity gospel movement, where pastors and celebrity speakers preach a radical freedom from mental illness with a "name it and claim it" gospel. The animating idea at work in these views is that mental health problems are, at root, spiritual problems that require spiritual answers, interventions, and solutions. Standard mental health practice, from the psychological to the psychiatric, is dismissed as either irrelevant or condemned as actively harmful.

All that to say, whenever you raise the prospect of a connection between faith and mental health, there is a collection of extreme views that you want to keep an eye on. When you argue for faith being implicated in psychological well-being you want to avoid a sort of "spiritual reductionism," where the psychological is wholly collapsed into and reduced to the spiritual. 

And yet, in an effort to keep some separation and distinction between the psychological and the spiritual, one can swing too far to the other side as well, treating these domains as wholly distinct and independent. That is, on the one hand you have spiritual issues which require spiritual interventions, like pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. On the other hand, you have psychological issues which require clinical interventions, therapy with psychologists and/or medications from psychiatrists. And these issues never overlap. It's apples and oranges. Spiritual issues in one sandbox and psychological issues in a separate sandbox.

That's an extreme view as well, one we should also avoid. Thankfully, over the last twenty years there has been a growing recognition in psychology regarding the role and importance of faith and spirituality in mental health and well-being. Rather than ignoring faith as irrelevant, psychologists are increasingly encouraged to use a client's faith and spirituality as a vital resource in treatment. Such efforts point to a "middle way" between the two extreme views we've described above. More on that in the next post.

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