How faith can get in the way of seeking mental health care
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“Doc, I’ll be honest with you,” a new patient in my therapy office told me. “I don’t really want to be here, but I tried everything, and my sister finally pushed me to come see you.”
She said she tried to remain stoic in the face of difficulties and accept God’s decree for her life. But many nights spent in prayer didn’t seem to help her heal from a childhood trauma that was retriggered by a recent incident.
In our sessions, she said her reluctance to seek therapy stemmed from her belief that it would complicate her relationship with God. It would be like asking for help from someone other than God.
A review article shows that individuals from all religious groups may use their religious beliefs as reasons not to seek help – a phenomenon known as spiritual bypassing – because they believe God is testing them for help. in a special way, that faith alone will suffice or that they are deserving of hardship.
As health professionals involved in mental health research and community and clinical work, we have seen this phenomenon in our own Muslim community. But we also know that while concerns are real and rooted in a commitment to faith, they can also be the result of misunderstood aspects of faith.
Teach patients that God does not want you to suffer
In many world religions, difficulties and challenges are understood as part of life, but are never meaningless or intended to hurt people. Rather, according to the teachings, God places us in difficult situations to help us realize our dependence on Him, shine a new light on our blessings, or learn lessons that help us grow spiritually.
When you go through a difficult time, try to learn from it, take concrete steps to overcome it, and use the experience to strengthen your trust in a loving God.
Faith can empower people to seek mental health care
In Islam, individuals are responsible for taking care of their body and mind, and this includes seeking appropriate help. This message resonates with many of the world’s great religious traditions, but may not always be emphasized when it comes to mental health.
One of the ways we encouraged the patient, a practicing Muslim, to seek therapy was by quoting this saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “O servants of God, seek treatment. Verily, Allah did not send a disease but He also sent its cure or cure.
This wisdom encourages worshipers to seek help for illnesses – including mental illnesses – and they can do so without feeling that they are betraying other religious ideals such as trust in God or belief in fate.
And care must be appropriate – we must seek help from professionals and not limit ourselves to self-help books, online resources, or friends and family. Unprofessional resources, even if well-intentioned, can sometimes be harmful without proper guidance.
Faith should help us feel empowered to ask for help even if we are initially unsure of its effectiveness.
For the patient, discovering that her religion encouraged mental health care was an important motivating factor in her decision to seek therapy. For others, seeking guidance from support systems or inner reflection can help them reach the same conclusion.
However, not all people of faith feel equipped or comfortable to seek mental health care, and religious beliefs can complicate the process. Here are some ways to facilitate access to care.
Bridging the gap between mental health and religion
Religious people often struggle to seek care because they rarely hear about mental health in religious settings and religious beliefs in health care settings.
It doesn’t have to be, and there are many examples of the fusion of religion and sanity.
If you are a member of a faith community pursuing therapy, talk about your religious beliefs. Likewise, when engaging with your faith community, find ways to talk about mental health.
Simply talking about each topic in new contexts can help strengthen the natural connection between the two and make it easier for others to ask for help.
Look at the trial and error process
Many people don’t click with the first therapist. Similarly, many religious people do not immediately feel welcome in some religious communities. Therapy and religious experience can be a process of trial and error, and that’s okay.
Don’t be discouraged if your therapist doesn’t know your religious beliefs or is unable to incorporate them into therapy. This may require more research on your part, or more learning on their part.
Likewise, don’t abandon your faith community if they are unable to discuss mental health in a way that makes the connection natural. It takes time, but it will happen.
It can be uncomfortable to start therapy and feel compelled to change your beliefs or worldview, especially because a big part of therapy can be about challenging your beliefs and thought patterns. But it helps to remember that you are in charge – you are letting a mental health professional into your world, not the other way around.
Feel confident and empowered to clearly and openly state your religious beliefs with your therapist and develop confidence that they will help you overcome your mental health issues without pushing back your faith. Our lab recently created a step-by-step process for navigating therapy that you may find helpful.
Over time, my reluctant patient came to see her therapy sessions as experiences that strengthened her faith, not as experiences that disqualified her.
“I thought talking to you meant I was complaining about what God decreed for me,” the patient said. “But I’m glad to be here now and I feel like God led me to you.”
Rania Awaad, MD, is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, Director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab, and President of Maristan, a nonprofit holistic mental and spiritual wellness group serving Muslim communities.
Taimur Kouser, MA, is an MD candidate at Stanford University School of Medicine and a researcher at the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab.
We welcome your feedback on this column at [email protected].
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