How Insights from Religion Could Promote Mental Health

When Psychology was taking form as an academic discipline, many were interested in the interface between Religion and Psychology. In particular, many were interested in how Religion and Psychology could work together to best promote mental health. For example, Carl Jung once noted that:

“Among all my patients in the second half of life. . . there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”

After some decades where the interface between Religion and Psychology was relatively neglected, interest has returned in the past couple of decades. In fact, within just the past few years, connections between Religion and Psychology have been at a peak. Much of this is due to an explosion of interest in the integration of Buddhist thought into Psychology.

I started to notice this new focus on Buddhism and Psychology with the publication and widespread influence of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), devised by Marsha Linehan.  DBT originally was developed to help with the most difficult-to-treat patients, those with Borderline Personality Disorder. Part of the treatment is a focus on mindfulness and meditation, pulling directly from Buddhism. Research convincingly has demonstrated the benefits of DBT, not only for Borderline Personality Disorder, but for other difficult-to-treat conditions as well, including serious forms of depression.

More recently, Buddhism has been integrated into mainstream Psychology in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In ACT, patients are taught to become more mindful of their thoughts and feelings, accept them for what they are, and to turn their attention toward what they value. Research is beginning to suggest many benefits for this treatment as well. In fact, some research suggests that ACT may be more beneficial than other forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy. For instance, marital therapy focusing on acceptance (when problems are acceptable) has been found to be more effective than traditional marital therapy focusing communication skills and problem solving.

On one hand, I find the influx of Buddhism into Psychology to be really interesting and probably very wise. In particular, the focus on self-awareness, an appreciation of the limitations of being “attached” to insecure and impermanent objects of desire, and the acceptance of some degree of suffering in life seems helpful. And, clearly, evidence supports its effectiveness.

On the other hand, the insights that may come from an integration of Buddhism into Psychology seem limited to me. From my Christian perspective, I wonder if problems point to the need for Something greater, a Savior figure, for instance, that is necessary for an ultimate understanding of what problems mean and how they can be resolved. Ironically, though Buddhism comes from what is typically a more interdependent Eastern culture, I wonder if its incorporation into Western psychotherapy is overly individualistic. Perhaps the greatest problems in our lives cannot be overcome by restructuring our thoughts, but need to be addressed through relationships. In particular, maybe a personal relationship with a Perfect Being is necessary to provide the permanent security we long for and the sense that things can be okay here because It is here inside of us and cares for us in the most radical manner imaginable. Perhaps the reason for “the church” is to provide relationships that can touch our souls and give us hope. Obviously, Christian beliefs are not held by everyone, but maybe mental health problems point to needs for how it was meant to be.

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3 Responses to How Insights from Religion Could Promote Mental Health

  1. Rick Rawson says:

    Interesting post. I only know enough about St. Ignatius to say that, according to people who have studied the subject, his Spiritual Exercises embody a level of understanding of human psychology that was well ahead of his time. It would make sense to me that the truth that Jesus revealed, since he is the Creator, would have to be consistent with human psychology and that to follow Him is the only way to be psychologically healthy and strong. I suspect that most Christians don’t see it that way, preferring to conclude that what Jesus wants us to do is hard or scary or contrary to healthy psychology, not the secret to living like a real human being in a terribly broken world. To turn the coin over, our understanding of human psychology as an academic pursuit might contribute to our understanding of New Testament statements, such as “whatever you do, do all to HIs glory” and “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and “set your mind on things above” and “pray without ceasing.” All of these we interpret and understand in religious terms and contexts, but what if we understood them, additionally, as statements about our psychology and how it really works and what we really need to survive. Jesus spoke of nothing less than survival when he said, “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” (The Message)

    • Quincy says:

      “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

      Altogether a great reply!

  2. aprilcairo says:

    I am studying a MSW and have noticed how much mindfulness is given credence. I have participated in DBT groups as an observer and am helping on a research project on mindfulness in youth. But I still remain a little torn as I love the concepts but wonder how well they integrate into a Christian undrstanding of sin and a life of following God. I’ve processed a few reflections on my blog about DBT and would love more input from various perspectives.

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