Faith and mental health…

Posted by on Jul 29, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

One of the issues explored in my latest book When Faith Turns Ugly: Understanding Toxic Faith and How to Avoid It is the impact of faith on mental health. Predictably it’s a discussion where nuance is needed, and sweeping generalizations are best avoided. Some forms are faith are linked to positive mental health, others are likely to negatively impact it – and it is important to differentiate between them. Chapter 4 of the book asks the question if, as Freud alleges, faith is essentially an illusion, adopted to help us avoid some of the tougher realities of life. It pushes back on the thesis, concluding that while it is sometimes true, remarkably often it is not. As with each of the chapters in the book, it finishes with an interview with someone who can add some additional insights to the issues raised. Personally I think that these interviews are some of the best parts of the book, and this is certainly the case in this chapter, where Perth based psychologist Yvonne Kilpatrick answers some of my questions.

Here is the interview. I hope you find it as helpful as I did… It is from page 70-72 of the book. 

In Conversation with Yvonne Kilpatrick

Yvonne Kilpatrick is a psychologist and works as a counsellor. She is involved in a church she considers to be life affirming but has had many conversations with friends and clients who have experienced toxic faith.

As a psychologist, do you sometimes see people use faith to avoid facing the harder issues of life? If so, what alerts you to this?

Yes, I do sometimes see faith used as an anaesthetic and blindfold. We all want to avoid pain – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual – and we use whatever is at hand, including our religious beliefs. When faith is used to avoid the pain or uncertainty that are pretty much a guaranteed part of being human, I’m alerted by pat answers, clichés, and over-spiritualising. Another sign is judgement of others, perhaps as a distorted way of bolstering self-worth and the correctness of a particular flavour of religion. Perhaps faith as self-protection is most visible when we are struggling to respond adequately to others’ pain. We might say, ‘I’ll pray for you’ and then leave them alone, or ‘Everything happens for a reason’, which has the same, distancing effect. Faith can be a great source of hope and strength in hard times, but not when it is used to keep us from facing them or joining with others in facing theirs.

You’ve had contact with people who have been caught up in sects. Why do sects appeal to some people and what damage do they cause?

Sects tend to appeal to people who are idealistic and have a low tolerance for ambiguity. They are often intelligent, well-adjusted people searching for meaning and at a turning point in life. In a sense they are not so much vulnerable people as they are people at a vulnerable stage who resonate with the absolutes, sense of community, purpose, and idealism of the sect. For those growing up in a sect, their outlooks are shaped from the beginning to conform to the group and not to question authority. Because sects can envelop the person’s whole life and identity, it is usually very difficult to leave. The damage caused is likely to be proportionate to the degree of control exercised over members and any abuse that has occurred. Ex-members report struggling with trust, self-confidence, alienation, anxiety, depression, and trauma-related issues. We may be confident our church is not a sect, but we must always be careful that we don’t use faith to control people. We cannot be preoccupied with appearances and behaviour at the expense of real relationships and real faith journeys.

Do you think genuine Christian faith promotes psychological well being, and if so, why?

I absolutely do! As a Psychologist who is known to be a Christian, I see a high proportion of Christian clients and it has made me wonder at times about the relationship between faith and mental health. In investigating the relevant literature to respond to this chapter, I was encouraged to find most recent research indicates religious beliefs are, in general, protective of mental health. For instance, they are positively associated with factors such as hope, optimism, self-esteem, purpose and belonging. Faith is also linked with lower rates of anxiety, suicide, psychosis, drug use, and criminality and with higher levels of marital stability and satisfaction. The Christian faith, in particular, promotes well being in that God’s love is unconditional and the faith is centred on relationship rather than a system. The unconditional love at the heart of a genuine Christian faith provides a foundation for a solid sense of worth and identity that can permeate every experience and relationship.

What do you see as being the conditions that contribute to toxic faith?

In terms of individual mental health, extrinsic religiousness is a major contributor to the development of toxic faith. That is, when faith is used to achieve personal or social goals, such as power, status, self-justification, distraction and personal comfort, it is associated with poorer mental health. For example, higher levels of guilt, anxiety, depressive symptoms and prejudice have been linked to extrinsic religiousness.

Faith that is used in a toxic way towards others requires a system to support it as well as individuals willing to wield it. In my view, the conditions which favour that are: total authority of leaders, a focus on ‘doing’ Christian things that is not balanced with the unquantifiable ‘being’ in relationship with God, and suspiciousness towards those who see faith differently. There is also a lack of questioning and struggling with complex issues together. In contrast, healthy faith does not have all the loose ends tied up neatly but it does have a confident core – a confidence in God’s love for us all that fosters health, including mental health. As a psychologist, I find that incredibly energizing and it motivates me to find more and better ways to incorporate clients’ faith experiences in therapy.

As always, nice chatting…

One Comment

  1. Hi Brian,

    Well that cleared up a few things, thanks!


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