Main Image Religion Helps Mental Health

Religion Helps Mental Health, According to Secular Experts

7 September 2021

5.3 MINS

The Western World is facing a mental health crisis, and the only solution is for psychiatry to get right with God. Why? According to the experts, religion actually helps mental health.

The Mental Health Dilemma

In Australia, a recent report from the Victorian government reveals that an average of 342 children, aged up to seventeen, presented to emergency departments each week.

The most severe cases, where teens required resuscitation and emergency treatment, surged to a six-weekly average of thirty-seven cases to the end of May, an eighty-three per cent rise on last year and a 162 per cent increase in 2019.

The rest of the West is also struggling — especially during this pandemic.

With that in mind, a headline from the flagship Scientific American magazine grabbed my attention: Psychiatry Needs to Get Right With God’.

The author David H. Rosmarin is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the McLean Hospital Spirituality & Mental Health Program. He’s researching the positive impact of religion on mental health.

And in doing so, he dispels the secular myth that religion is harmful to mental health.

Here’s what he points out:

1) Historically, Psychiatry and Psychology Had Little Place for God

Psychiatry and Psychology haven’t always been friendly toward religion. As Rosmarin explains:

Since Sigmund Freud’s characterization of religion as a “mass-delusion” nearly 100 years ago, mental health professionals and scientists have eschewed the spiritual realm. Current efforts to flatten the COVID-19 mental health curve have been almost entirely secular…

As a result, we ignore potential spiritual solutions to our mental health crisis, even when our wellbeing is worse than ever before.

The spiritual dimension has been a blind spot for mental health professionals.

2) Mental Health Professionals are Beginning to See Religion as Important to Mental Health

The pandemic has shown the importance of religion to mental health. It’s worth quoting Rosmarin’s words in full:

In the past year, American mental health sank to the lowest point in history: Incidence of mental disorders increased by 50 percent, compared with before the pandemic, alcohol and other substance abuse surged, and young adults were more than twice as likely to seriously consider suicide than they were in 2018.

Yet the only group to see improvements in mental health during the past year were those who attended religious services at least weekly (virtually or in-person): 46 percent report “excellent” mental health today versus 42 percent one year ago.

As former congressional representative Patrick J. Kennedy and journalist Stephen Fried wrote in their book A Common Struggle, the two most underappreciated treatments for mental disorders are “love and faith.”

He continues:

My own research has demonstrated that a belief in God is associated with significantly better treatment outcomes for acute psychiatric patients. And other laboratories have shown a connection between religious belief and the thickness of the brain’s cortex, which may help protect against depression. Of course, belief in God is not a prescription. But these compelling findings warrant further scientific exploration, and patients in distress should certainly have the option to include spirituality in their treatment.

Belief in God thickens the brain’s cortex and helps to ‘protect against depression’?

That is fascinating.

The idea that belief in God is good for mental health is not a new one, however. Former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman noted the protective factor of religious belief when he wrote:

‘[O]ne truth about meaning is this: the larger the entity to which you can attach yourself, the more meaning you will feel your life has. While some argue that generations that lived for God… were misguided, these same generations surely felt their lives imbued with meaning.

The individual, the consuming self, isolated from larger entities, is a very poor site for a meaningful life. However, the bloated self is fertile soil for the growth of depression.’1

This idea is gaining traction elsewhere.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in 2019 by a psychotherapist, Erica Komisar, entitled: ‘Don’t Believe in God? Lie to Your Children’.

Komisar pointed out Harvard research showing that belonging to a religious community is a protective factor for children’s mental health.2

3) Many Secular People are Longing for Spiritual Comfort

Interestingly, even those with no religious affiliation seek out mental health care involving a spiritual dimension. In his research, Professor Rosmarin found the following:

Our results also suggest that spiritual care is not only for religious individuals. The largest group of patients to voluntarily attend [our pilot program] (39 percent of our sample) were individuals with no religious affiliation at all.

Apparently, many nonreligious people still seek spirituality, especially in times of distress. In fact, such individuals may be most likely to attend spiritual psychotherapy because their spiritual needs are otherwise ignored. In this vein, recent declines in church membership may increase the need for spiritual care.

In a secular West where religion has been privatised and marginalised, people will seek spiritual comfort in all sorts of ways. This shouldn’t surprise us, as we’re inherently worshipping beings (Rom 1:18-30). The question is, what will we worship?

4) Questioning the Secular Narrative of Christianity Being Harmful (Through Secular Research)

An increasingly common narrative in our culture is that religion is harmful — especially when it clashes with a person’s sexuality.

And yet, the above research shows that religion is good for people’s mental wellbeing. The social-scientific research increasingly shows the ‘religion is inherently harmful’ narrative doesn’t stack up to hard evidence. Being religious has positive benefits for the believer (as well as for society as a whole).

When it comes to Christianity, we shouldn’t be surprised by this research.

Christianity aligns our human nature with God’s design for us. Thus, all things being equal, we’ll have better outcomes in life than we would otherwise — including in our mental health.

And so, like Paul in Acts 17, we shouldn’t be afraid of using secular research like this to counter false secular narratives about Christianity.

But there is more to religion than good mental health.

5) The Need For Truth Is More Important Than The Need For Good Mental Health

Research like Rosmarin’s has a functionalist view of religion: religion is merely a means to an end, in this case, good mental health.

In the functionalist view, any religion that delivers improved mental health is good enough. You could be a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Zoroastrian — it makes no difference: all that matters is your mental health improves.

But this view ignores the question of truth.

While good mental health is important, human beings have a more significant need than good mental health: reconciliation with the true and living God.

To paraphrase Jesus, what good is it for a person to gain good mental health but lose their soul? Mental health is good, but in the final analysis, it’s not enough. Truth — the truth of the Gospel — is necessary.

Furthermore, if Christianity is merely a means to better mental health, what happens when being Christian starts costing you in other areas of life?

What if being a Christian means you lose job security, friends at school, or even your physical wellbeing (Afghanistan, anyone)?

If a person is attracted to Christianity because of the promise of better mental health, they’re unlikely to stay once the pressure comes — or perhaps even when they realise how offensive the Gospel is (1 Cor 1:18-25, Gal 5:11).

Christians Can Welcome This Research

Christians can welcome this research into the benefits of religion and mental health, not because we need any secular confirmation of the truth and goodness of Christianity. Instead, it helps counter a pernicious secular narrative: a narrative that is increasingly pushed to limit the preaching of the Gospel.

The irony is that governments like Victoria are not helping the mental health crisis by pushing the narrative that religion is inherently suspect.

If anything, they’re making the mental health crisis worse.



[1] Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D, The Optimistic Child – A Proven Programme to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), p. 42.

[2] I should point out that being Christian is no guarantee that you’ll be spared from mental health concerns. See this post of my journey with anxiety and mental health concerns.


Originally published at
Image by Fernando Brasil on Unsplash.

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