Religion and Mental Health: the connection between faith and delusion

It seems that when it comes the mental health, religion is a double-edged sword.

Sigmund Freud described religion as an “obsessive compulsive neurosis” and Richard Dawkins once also claimed it could qualify as a mental illness.

Studies have shown there is a complex connection between religion and mental issues. A 2014 study found that people who believe in a vengeful or punitive god are more likely to suffer from mental issues such as social anxiety, paranoia, obsessional thinking, and compulsions. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, professor of psychiatry from Duke University’s Medical Center in North Carolina, one-third of psychoses involve religious delusions. The American Psychiatric Association issued a mental health guide for faith leaders to help those preaching the word differentiate between devout belief and dangerous delusion or fundamentalism. The guide includes sections discussing how a person with a mental illness might believe they are receiving a message from a higher power, are being punished, or possessed by evil spirits, and notes the importance of distinguishing whether these are symptoms of a mental disorder or other distressing experience. In May this year a report released as part of the Vietnam Head Injury Study found damage in a certain part of the brain was linked to an increase in religious fundamentalism.

It’s also possible that the beliefs and teachings advocated by a religion for example forgiveness or compassion, can become integrated into the way our brain works, this is because the more that certain neural connections in the brain are used, the stronger they can become. Of course, obviously then the flip-side is true too, and a doctrine that advocates negative beliefs, such as hatred or ostracization of non-believers, or even belief that certain health issues are a ‘punishment’ from a higher power, detrimental effects to an individual’s mental health can occur.

If we take time to consider the connection we can find between religiosity and aspects of mental health we might not immediately consider there are plenty examples to be found. Addictive behaviours for example. To some a casino is their church, and a recent study from the University of Utah showed that religion can activate the same areas of the brain that respond to drug use, or even other addictive behaviours, like gambling. The ritualised and repetitive nature that draws church-goers to Sunday sermons activates the same areas of the brain that a problem gambler experiences when they play the slot machines.

When it comes to the doctrines themselves, most religions denounce gambling outright. But there are some established links between religion and gambling that may not seem apparent at first. According to research from 2002 cited by Masood Zangeneh of the Center for Research on Inner City Health in Canada, a strong correlation can be found between attending church services and purchasing lottery tickets.

That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of research that also shows the opposite can be true. Researchers at the University of Missouri reported in 2012 that better mental health is “significantly related to increased spirituality,” regardless of religion. In terms of which religions seem to be the most resistant towards the lures of gambling and other risky behaviours, a 2013 study undertaken in Germany found that Muslims in Germany to be less risk taking in general than Catholics, Protestants, and non-religious people.

A Korean study exploring the relationship between mental health and religiosity provides a good illustration of the duality between the two. The research team’s findings showed that spirituality is most often associated with current episodes of depression, and seems to suggest that individuals with currently experiencing depressive symptoms have a stronger tendency to place importance on spiritual values. In other words, a depressive episode often motivates patients to seek out religion as a way of coping with their illness. Several studies have suggested that religious activities, such as worship attendance, may play a role in combating depression. In part thanks to the community aspect and the extended support networks which worship attendance provides. Social support accounts for about 20-30 percent of the measured benefits. The rest comes from aspects such as the sort of self-discipline encouraged by religious faith, and the optimistic worldview that it can support.

Likewise, a study from March this year showed that those who held devout religious beliefs were less afraid of death than those with uncertain ones, interestingly devout atheists also held little anxiety about death and the after-life.

There is other evidence to suggest that spirituality benefits mental health. Focusing on spiritual and religious practices such as meditation or community service in contrast to a focusing on materialism can contribute to feeling more fulfilled and satisfied in everyday life.

It seems that while there are some negative links between religion and mental illness, there’s no evidence to support categorising it as a disorder, regardless of Freud’s opinion on the matter.

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