A belief in religion (or its red-headed step-brother, spirituality) is almost universal across every culture within the human race. A 2005 survey published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica found that total atheists are very rare at about 2.3% of humanity. In other words, less than three people in a hundred think that life is a cosmic accident and death is the end. The rest believe in Something, even if they aren’t sure Who or What it is. Whether you belong to the Roman Catholic church or dabble in peyote and animism with a Native American tribe, humans seem naturally wired up to believe in something greater, something beyond our temporary physical shells.
Although it would be improper for a psychiatrist or other mental health professional to give religious advice to their patients, it cannot be denied that there are benefits to simply believing in Something, especially if you live with a profound disability. Belief can be reassuring and empowering and allow a person to carry burdens that would otherwise crush them. Of course, it’s also common for people to shake their fist at the sky and scream, “Why me, God? It’s not fair! How dare you give me this disability?”
In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s not unusual for the same person to fit into both categories at different times.
After reading an article in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal (which had the cumbersome title of “Is There a Balm in Gilead? The Implications of Faith in Coping with a Psychiatric Disability”), we were a little surprised that the two authors – a professor of psychology and a psychiatric rehabilitation supervisor – had taken the unusual step of focusing on the spiritual beliefs of the people who they helped. Obviously, any psychiatrist who preached hellfire and repentance at their patients as a part of their treatment would have a very short career indeed, so it must be noted that Professor Kenneth E. Bussema of the college of Iowa isn’t suggesting any such thing. Professor Ken simply explored whether the religious beliefs of his patients affected how they coped with stress, if it helped to prevent relapses, how it impacted on their inner selves and their decision-making processes and other factors. The results were varied, but generally positive (we just summed up eight pages in seven words to avoid sending you to sleep. You’re welcome).
It’s important to remember that schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions can potentially cause a severe distortion in someone’s perception and their ability to tell reality from delusion. If somebody has an active psychotic state and is currently without the priceless benefit of insight into their condition, it’s common for them to experience “filtering” in how they perceive the world around them. We aren’t saying that religion is bad: it’s just that having a mental health issue can lead to embarrassing, dangerous, destructive or otherwise negative events if their beliefs – religious, spiritual or otherwise – are skewed by schizophrenia. Examples include people destroying their possessions or harming themselves or somebody else because they felt compelled to do so “by God” or something else along those lines.
This is why attending a church/mosque/temple/whatever to mix with similar believers has a value beyond simple social contact, as having access to trusted (and more experienced) believers can assist in helping you to filter out pesky delusions and other erroneous beliefs. For instance, the author of this article regularly attends church and Bible study, but due to the nature of his mental health issues he doesn’t read the Bible on his own, so airing a few of the things rattling around in the back of his brainbox can help to avoid complications (and reduce those endless head-miles).
As a rule of thumb (and this goes for all religions out there) if you have a mental health issue and also have unusual beliefs, perhaps that God wants you to burn down the neighbour’s house in order for Jesus to return, then this needs to be tested against the evidence on hand; in this case, the New Testament, or talking with a more senior person at your place of worship. If your belief doesn’t match up with the established information (and we don’t recall Jesus being a big advocate of pyromania), then it would be a very, very good idea to remember one of the main points of this story: a mental health issue can affect your perception of the world around you, and this must always be a part of your standard reasoning process.