Faith and Mental Health: Part 3, Faith as Coping Strategy

As mentioned at the end of the last post, psychologists are increasingly looking at faith and spirituality as a therapeutic resource. Much of this is due to the rise of positive psychology and the scientific study of happiness and flourishing. Faith has long been known to be predictive of happiness and well-being, so it only makes sense to consider it a therapeutic resource. 

Basically, a client's faith is considered by psychologists to be a coping strategy, a client-centered resource that can be used to support a variety of therapeutic goals, from meaning-making to anxiety-reduction to rehabilitating self-image. We can turn to our faith to find purpose in life, to secure a sense of peace and rest, and to discover a source of dignity and significance that transcends life circumstance. 

Viewing faith as a coping strategy seems to answer our paradoxical sensibilities regarding the connection between faith and mental health (Part 1), while avoiding the extreme view outlined in Part 2.

Specifically, to use a metaphor, we don't begin the marathon of well-being at the same starting place or with the same fitness levels. Some of us are far down the road, happy and flourishing. Others are behind and struggling to keep up. Our location on the run and fitness are due to a complex mixture of nature, nurture, and personal choice. Keeping with the running metaphor, faith is a coping strategy no matter where you are on the race. Far ahead or behind, faith is like a watering and feeding station along the run, or the crowd that cheers you on giving you a second wind. 

It should be obvious how this metaphor answers the paradox of faith and mental health. On the one hand, yes, faith is clearly implicated in mental health. No matter where you are in life, faith is there to help, like getting that drink during a hard part of the marathon. Without that drink the run would be so much harder. You might even dehydrate and drop out. 

But at the same time that drink of water doesn't give you super-speed, supernaturally turning you into the Flash, allowing you to race to the front of the line. You remain where you are in the race. Still, faith keeps you going. This idea--faith keeping you running no matter where you are in the race--explains why faith always aids mental health yet why people of faith can vary in their respective degree of mental health.

This marathon metaphor also helps us avoid the extreme views we encountered in the last post. Contrary to what the prosperity gospel preachers say, faith doesn't give you super-speed or wings, erasing your place in the race or the number of miles ahead of you. Faith is no short cut to mental wholeness. There's a journey to be taken. And yet, faith does help us run and finish the race. We're not alone on the journey and we're not unsupported. In fact, without faith we might never finish the race, never experience happiness, peace, and joy in our lifetimes. 

So, faith always supports mental health, and the mental health of believers can vary widely. 

Problem solved, right?

Not quite. 

Yes, from a psychological angle, the faith-as-coping approach seems to deal with the most obvious questions facing us when it comes to faith and mental health, answering the paradoxes and navigating between extreme views. But for the psychologist and theologian, there are some remaining issues still lingering. 

We'll turn to those issues next.

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