The church as a mental health refuge
A vast majority of Filipinos subscribe to a religion or a belief system. At the same time, millions endure some form of mental health issue. For instance, statistics by the international research program Global Burden of Disease reveal that as of 2017, some 2.5 million Pinoys have a depressive disorder while 3.1 million have anxiety disorder. If faith is a salve for the sick, then religious society must be a haven for those who suffer. Why then are churches so seldom involved in mainstreaming mental health?Attend a traditional service and you might see why. Religious leaders and devout practitioners typically shy away from the difficult subject that is mental health. When they do decide to confront the subject, their response usually comes from a rigid theological perspective that either pressures individuals to feel better purely by faith, or threatens them with fire-and-brimstone punishment.
Either approach is detrimental to a person grappling with mental health issues. It implies that the mental or psychological affliction is a result of one’s lack of faith or prayer, their sinfulness, or their own weak spirit. This could contribute to the person’s isolation, guilt and negative self-perception.
Fortunately, not all church groups are this cavalier about mental wellness. If we dig enough, we find stories of religious organizations and faith-led programs that not only listen to the voices of its members, but also actively help lighten their burdens. There are also churches that extend support through already-existing mental health programs in schools and the community.
From these, we get a picture of how religion can be a helpful institution for believers with a mental health disorder. Specifically, there are four adjustments a church can work on to aid the mental wellness of its members.
First is to recognize mental disorders as a legitimate health concern—as legitimate as flu or diabetes. And when we say mental illness, we are referring to the broad range of it, including depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. It’s not just the stereotypical “baliw” or “buang.”Many people with mental disorders are functioning members of society, active in school or work, and attendees of church service. Congregations must recognize that just because a person is not raving in the streets doesn’t mean their mental condition isn’t real. With updated education on mental health, religious groups can have a better understanding of what mental disorders may actually look like and how to constructively help a brother or sister.
The second adjustment is to talk about mental illness instead of skirting around it, or dismissing it with a simple “Just pray.” People with mental health issues often find it difficult to communicate their burden, all the more so in an environment that does not seem to welcome such hard topics. When tragedy occurs in the form of suicide or self-injury, it is often the devout congregation (next to the family) that is rocked the most, because the signs slipped past them. The church, alongside the family, should be open to this conversation because that is where most Filipinos first turn to when they are in distress.
It is also vital for the church to be in solidarity with individuals with mental afflictions, instead of casting them out as people of weak faith or, worse, as sinners who must bear suffering. To be in solidarity with them means to listen to them without judgment, to recognize their multifaceted needs (not just the spiritual), and to keep the church doors open to them despite their distinct fallibilities.Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, it is crucial for the church to integrate its spiritual guidance with science-based treatment—or at least to accept the need for it. Faith and science do not have to be at odds when it comes to mental health. For a person who has belief, the church can be a valid source of support, helping nurture their inner life. But that must come hand in hand with scientific approaches such as therapy, counseling or medication. Again, mental illness is a real health condition requiring concrete treatment.
There is so much cynicism about the role of the church in people’s mental wellness. Skeptics, especially secular ones, say that religion only hampers the progress of science and medicine. The church’s sluggish participation in mental health hardly makes it an ally of those who suffer. But as it stands, the church is a powerful force in the lives of Filipinos. It might as well become a place of true refuge.
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