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Faith communities and mental health

Religious or spiritual leaders are often the first people individuals turn to in times of personal crisis

Dr Julian Eaton 2017

A health worker in Malawi, where Tearfund partner Livingstonia Synod AIDS Programme (LISAP) has organised groups of churches to work with people living with HIV. Photo: Chris Boyd/Tearfund

From: Health and faith – Footsteps 102

First aid tips, health workers' stories, a Bible study on healing and much more

Religious or spiritual leaders are often the first people individuals turn to in times of personal crisis. They can bring wisdom, healing and reconciliation. 

People often seek this kind of support if they have an illness, whether physical or mental. In both cases, people are looking for spiritual comfort. But they may also need to be directed to an appropriate medical expert. 

What are mental health problems? 

Mental health problems affect people’s emotions, mood, thinking or behaviour. They are very common. About one in four of us will have a mental health problem at some time in our lives. For most people, this will be a brief period of depression or anxiety. In this case, it is very helpful to talk to friends and family, or spiritual or community leaders. This can help to resolve the problems causing the distress. 

However, a smaller number of people may experience more severe mental illness. For example, their behaviour may be very strange, or their thinking and speech may be very confused. In this case, it is important for them to see a mental health expert. 

In many cultures, people wrongly assume that severe mental illness is always caused by spiritual difficulties or even demon possession. This can result in long periods of ‘treatment’ in churches, mosques or temples, or by traditional healers. Sometimes this is done without the person’s consent, and may stop people from seeking proper medical care. This can make the illness worse.  

People are much more likely to recover from mental illness if they are treated with compassion, have a choice about what treatment they receive, and benefit from seeing a mental health expert if necessary. 

Illustration: Petra Röhr-Rouendaal

Simply listening and showing you care can often help people feel better. Illustration: Petra Röhr-Rouendaal

Finding extra help

If there are no mental health workers in your area, here are some ideas: 

  • Advocate with local authorities, NGOs or faith-based organisations to provide mental health care. 
  • Encourage local health and social care workers to get training in basic mental health skills. 
  • Identify the nearest mental health service and arrange for its workers to visit your community from time to time. 

Remember: prevention is better than a cure! 

Good ways of protecting people’s mental health include: 

  • maintaining good communication and loving relationships in communities 
  • finding ways of resolving conflict 
  • supporting people when they are struggling with practical challenges. 

Simple Dos and Don'ts

Here are some suggestions of things to do, and what not to do, if someone comes to you with a mental health problem. 

DO 

  • Listen carefully and try to understand what the person and their family are going through. 
  • Show that you care and are willing to help. This alone can make people feel much better. 
  • Ask the person what they would like help with. 
  • Encourage friends and family to provide care and support. 
  • If you think someone needs more support than you can offer, advise them to seek care from a mental health service. 

DON’T 

  • Don’t blame people for the situation they are in. 
  • Don’t assume all unusual behaviour has a spiritual cause. 
  • Don’t force people to speak about their problems if they don’t want to. If a person trusts you with personal information, do not share it with others. 
  • Don’t force a person to have any form of spiritual or herbal treatment against their will, or keep them locked up. 
  • Don’t reject people. Instead, ensure they are welcomed into the social and spiritual life of the community.

  Dr Julian Eaton

Dr Julian Eaton is the Mental Health Director for CBM Global and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Global Mental Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

email: julian.eaton@cbm-global.org

www.cbm-global.org

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