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Religion and Mental Health

Religion is an integral part of life for many as it provides comfort, purpose and direction. Its influence on people can be vast and evident in everything they do, from the foods they eat to the names of their children and their career paths. But when it comes to matters of the mind, can religion be a help or a hindrance?

People normally share religion in communities so their beliefs are affirmed by those around them and places of worship are often a community's cornerstone. The support offered by a place of worship can be very impactful to its followers; and the way in which matters are handled in religious places of worship trickle down into the community to cause affect to individuals. Due to the complexity of religion, two people could share the same beliefs but incorporate them into their lives in completely different ways. Religious texts are used as a guideline for life, but due to human nature, the text may sometimes be irrelevant to the way things are executed, (see: transatlantic slave trade). So the religion itself may not necessarily effect mental health, but the way that it is practiced will...

In communities of African descent, religious practices and places of worship have been a glue and support system in times of trouble. Even in the face of colonialism, our adoption of foreign religion has been heavily integrated with our cultures (to the extent where we have our own denominations in western religions). There are many, many, many religions practiced in the diaspora, from the obvious ones like Christianity and Islam to the ones some our ancestors practiced and developed (they are still practiced today) e.g. Ifa, Santeria and Rastafarianism. Today, religion remains a very central part of life to most.

Because religion is such a fundamental part of life for many (just like love, family and finances), it can be very impacting on one's mental well-being depending on attitudes and practices.

What aspects of religion can be beneficial for the mind?

  • Encouragement to practice forgiveness.

  • Encouragement to pray and/or meditate. Meditation is a great form of stress relief and can give one a lot of personal insight.

  • A strong sense of community and a large support system. Being surrounded by people that you know, feel secure around and trust provides security. Just knowing that there are a group of people available to rely on during hard times gives a sense of comfort.

  • Having leaders that share positive and uplifting messages. When people that you regard as wise and knowledgeable spread positive messages, you internalize the message deeper and this reflects in your daily life which leads to positive outcomes.

  • Being taught to be grateful. This causes people to be more acknowledging of things that may regularly be taken for granted, it gives the feeling of being blessed and can make one feel special.

  • Practice religious festivities - this reinforces a sense of community and gives reasons to be grateful.

  • Structure and discipline e.g. weekly services or particular prayer times. This prevents isolation, gives people something to look forward to and reinforces a sense of purpose.

  • Hope and belief in supernatural guidance provides assurance and comfort.

While the therapeutic functions of religion are undeniable, when not considered, there can be damaging effects.

What aspects of religion can be bad for the mind?

  • Condemnation. Instead of sincere correction, some may face harsh social rejection and shunning which can trigger feelings of betrayal, isolation and worthlessness - especially when it comes from a community that they feel that they belong to.

  • Inferior treatment of certain groups of people due to a part of their identity e.g. being a woman or being black. This does not have to be in the religious text but if that's what is perpetuated by the community, it's damaging.

  • Existing issues are overlooked by blind optimism to the extent that people are shamed for raising a concern.

  • There are passive attitudes to individuality - so self discovery is discouraged.

  • Religion may be used as a substitute for other types of necessary help.

  • Shame is a major themes taught by leaders.. Like positive messages, negative ones can be strongly internalized - especially when taught by respected influencers.

  • Mental health problems may be stigmatized and/or seen as a divine punishment so those that may have concerns are silenced, ridiculed or shunned.

You can discuss any concerns with the Lafiya Health team here.

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