7 Harmful Myths About Religion, Lifestyle and Mental Health
As a mental health professional, person with lived experience and person of faith, I sometimes hear misconceptions about mental health in my community, and I wanted to address these misconceptions with what I have learned through research and firsthand experience. These are a few of the myths that continue to reverberate in regards to mental health, spirituality and different lifestyles, as well as my thoughts on each.
1. You can pray your way out of it.
I believe God gives us many tools to deal with illnesses. I think prayer is how we should always respond to any health crisis, and it is powerful. But there are also other important steps to take. For example, antibiotics for infections, splints for broken bones, antidepressants for clinical depression. The brain is an organ which is susceptible to illness like any other organ.
2. Organized religion is damaging to mental health.
On the other end of the spectrum, prominent psychiatrists in the past have viewed organized religion as damaging, and high levels of religious involvement as symptomatic of mental disorders. However, a growing body of more recent research suggests spirituality does improve mental health, especially if it is practiced in communion with others. While specific events such as abuse by a church authority or similar traumas are without a doubt damaging to mental health, spiritual faith and religious connection overall are often invaluable to our mental health, and should not be viewed as separate from, or incompatible with, our mental health.
3. If your faith is strong enough, you’ll never need to go on medication.
Again, research shows spirituality practiced in connection with others improves our mental health. But this does not mean the faithful are immune to illness. A person who is so depressed they can’t get out of bed may find the church life-saving. They may also find an antidepressant gives them the ability to get up and get to church. Hearing their condition joked about or referred to as a weakness will not encourage them to come back, and this is a real shame, since a number of people in recovery find the church to be a lifeline. We need to be careful with our words.
4. True believers don’t get depressed or kill themselves.
Unfortunately, they do. Just like they are not immune to cancer, diabetes or heart disease, they are not immune to brain disease. Choices can sometimes raise our risk of getting a variety of illnesses — what we eat and whether we exercise for example — but whether we get sick is not directly predicted by our lifestyle, and in my experience, we have a tendency to label brain disease as the fault of the patient which is not accurate or helpful.
5. A healthy lifestyle means your mental health will be A-OK.
I know many individuals who work out regularly, eat a healthy diet, make time to serve others, socialize, go to church and just basically do all the “right things,” and still experience a mental health disorder, in many cases requiring medication to manage and sometimes hospitalization. While a healthy lifestyle absolutely helps, it does not guarantee perfect health in the brain (or any other part of the body).
6. Lifelong medication is the only way to recover.
Medication does not work for everyone, and furthermore, I don’t believe it should always be the first course of action. If you are drinking or using drugs or if you are lonely and isolated, then your risk for developing depression or another mental health disorder is increased. These conditions are very real, but like other health conditions, physical and behavioral changes can improve and sometimes heal them before medication is needed.
Additionally, if a person does need medication and takes it for a period of time, they may eventually no longer need it. Depending on the type and severity of the condition, some people may need medication throughout their lifespan (similar to medications for other chronic health conditions), and some may just take it “as needed.” The most important thing to remember is to follow the guidance of your therapist and doctor, whose objective and well-informed perspectives are needed for the best outcome.
7. People who have mental illnesses are just lazy/faking it/seeking attention.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say no one has ever faked a mental illness to get out of working, but the vast majority of people with mental illness want to be able to work. They want to be able to actively live their lives and do all of the things “healthy” people do. Many also want help. If someone is seeking attention, it’s probably because they need attention. We certainly shouldn’t be shaming people for asking for help, even if they do it in a way that is unappealing to us.
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