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What is the relationship between religion and mental health?

Dr Yusuf outlines how religion might impact on mental health for Muslims.
The question of whether religion can or does impact one’s mental health is one that’s very worthwhile Asking. When we examine this question Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to make sense. When I was studying how to become a psychiatrist, how to assess someone’s mental health, religion was really not in the picture at all. It wasn’t even a question that was asked. And the reason for that is when mental health is considered in a purely biological way or in a purely social way, i.e. it’s mental health, it relates to your brain and how it functions or mental health relates to your environment and what is happening around you, then religion doesn’t really seem to play a role.
It’s a bit like saying, you know, how does religion impact on your cardiac health? Or, how does religion impact on your liver? However, when you examine the question of the psychology of a person, what makes them tick? It’s at this point really this idea of mental health and the mind being the subjective ‘I’, and the things that shape that sense of ‘I-ness’ or who I am. It’s really at this point that one’s deepest and most cherished beliefs, the way one constructs meaning and understands our past, our present, our future, this now really starts to impact on you.
So you can imagine, for example, a person who believes that their purpose in life was to earn a lot of money, and that was what they were there for. That’s what their life was constructed around. For that person to lose their job would be very different from if a person had a job, but also had lots of hobbies and lots of other things that fulfilled them, for them to lose their job would be a very different thing. Why? Because for the first person they’ve lost their meaning. They’ve lost their purpose of existence.
So the types of beliefs that we have, the way that we understand ourselves and what our meaning and purpose is, because human beings are meaning seekers, we look for meaning in things, the way in which we do that fundamentally plays an impact on our subjective sense of distress or anxiety. Now, it’s not the only thing that plays a role. Of course, as you’ll see a little bit later on in this course, but it is a critical factor. Human beings are meaning seekers, and religion is about the provision of meaning. Who are you? Where have you come from? And, where are you going to? These three waymarks of your life, your past, your present and your future.
So religion and culture play a huge role in this understanding of meaning and purpose. Sometimes this can be extremely positive. So, for example, a person going through a very dark time, a very difficult time in their lives, the sense that God is with me can be tremendously relieving and it provides hope and inspires you. At the same time, it can also sometimes have a negative impact. God is punishing me. I have done something wrong. This is my karma. You know for people from Eastern religions like Hinduism, for example.
So actually understanding that and knowing for a therapist or for somebody engaged in helping a person deal with what they’re going through at the moment, understanding their approach to this becomes very, very important. So why do we need to have a better understanding of the role in which religion plays in people’s mental health? Well, if you’re a patient or if you are a family member or a carer, it’s important to recognise that many of these fundamental beliefs that we have really go unexamined and they can play an impact, they can have a big role, play a really big, have a really big impact on your mental health problem, its development or recovery from it.
So there are certain things that are swimming around in our subconscious, for example, that are there, but we may not be aware of. Now, bringing that to light, for example, a hidden issue with your religious beliefs. The idea that what I am going through, I am going through because God is punishing me because I’ve done something wrong. It’s there. It’s there in the background. You may not have realised it. When it’s brought out into the open, it’s something that can then be challenged, it can be looked at, it can be modified.
And that, and I’ve seen this with many many patients, can have a really big impact on your subjective sense of distress And the way in which you view the situation you are in. It can help to uncover hidden strengths and therefore opportunities for recovery. From the perspective of a practitioner. So if you are a health care professional, you are a mental health Professional, in addition to all of that it’s important to realise that many patients or many service users who will come to you will feel deeply uncomfortable in talking about their religious beliefs, particularly as relates to their mental health.
And so allowing them the space to open up that conversation is something that can feel extremely freeing for that patient, or for the carer for example. All right. Many of the people that you will experience, many Muslims, their worldview is fundamentally shaped by religious beliefs, whether or not they appear to be outwardly practicing.
They have grown up in a certain belief system. That belief system affects them sometimes in ways that they are aware of, sometimes in ways that they’re not aware of. And actually allowing the conversation to be opened up is part of good assessment and good management of a person undergoing mental health difficulties.
And that’s especially because most religious patients and, Muslim patients in this case, will not feel comfortable talking about their religious beliefs because they believe that those religious beliefs probably won’t be understood. So, ‘I’m not going to talk about this because they won’t really believe me’. So I remember coming and seeing a patient in my clinic they had just started therapy and we were having a conversation. I said, ‘How’s the therapy going?’ And they said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s, it’s yeah, it’s okay. You know, Joanne is very nice and we talk about stuff. And I say, ‘but have you spoken about this aspect of things?’ ‘Oh no, she won’t understand that.
I don’t want to bring that up because it’ll just, you know, she won’t understand it.’ And I said, ‘maybe you should try her, maybe you should try her and see’. Spoke to them four weeks later, remarkable difference. What was the difference? They felt able to open up. They felt that they had been allowed to open up about this deep aspect of what they were feeling. And by talking about it, had come to a resolution and had come to an understanding. Not necessarily that Joanne gave them a religious understanding, but they had worked it out for themselves. Sometimes a particular belief is sort of twisted inside you.
And it’s only when you bring it out into the open that you realise, ‘oh, actually, no, that’s not right’. So by talking about it, you can untwist it and in that way relieve a great deal of mental distress that you’re experiencing. So it’s really important that there is a space that is opened up for people to talk about the things that really matter to them, because it’s the things that really matter to them, it’s those deeply held beliefs about the way in which the world works and the way in which your life is moving, that is often the key to bringing about recovery.

In this video, Dr Yusuf addresses the important question: ‘how does religion impact mental health?’

Drawing on his own professional experiences, Dr Yusuf explains why, for some people, religion is an important factor for their mental health and wellbeing.

Religion can represent people’s deepest and most cherished beliefs, and the ways in which they make sense of their lives and experiences. Therefore, to understand how best to support people who follow a religion, practitioners will find it useful to understand the role that religious practices and beliefs play in their lives.

We are reminded that religion can be a sensitive topic and Dr Yusuf recommends that practitioners create ‘spaces’ where those who need mental health support feel comfortable to talk about what their religion means to them.

Over to you

How can ‘safe spaces’ be created for people to talk about their mental health and their religion? Can you share with other learners how you achieve this when you provide mental health support?

As well as sharing your response below, perhaps include your response and any considerations in your reflective diary.

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Understanding Mental Health in Muslim Communities

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