Religion is a deeply personal issue, contentious for some and life-saving for others. Entire wars have been fought in the name of faith, countries founded to escape religious persecution, constitutions drafted to protect your right to practice, or not to practice, religion. This issue of faith is not just debated in courts and on battlefields, it is often discussed in the mental health arena as well. While some view faith as a tool to aid in recovery, some view it as a crutch that hinders recovery. For many who seek psychological care for eating disorders (ED) and other mental health disorders, religion and spirituality are an important part of healing. A combination of faith and evidence-based practice can promote health and wellness.
Can Religion Help with ED and Other Mental Health Disorders?
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a grassroots mental health organization designed to fight the stigma against mental illness, claims there are many mental health benefits to religion and spirituality. According to NAMI, “Religion can help a person tolerate stress by generating peace, purpose and forgiveness.” The social component of organized religion can be a benefit as well because it can facilitate positive connections with other members, create a sense of belonging to a group, and offer trustworthy and safe social engagement.
Misconceptions about Faith and Mental Health Disorders
There is a misconception that if you seek therapy or medication, or a combination of the two, then you are failing in your faith, not praying hard enough, or are somehow deserving of your mental health struggles. It is easy to believe you are a failure for seeking help with an eating disorder when certain pastors claim that mental health disorders and developmental disorders are signs of demonic oppression.
What Does the Bible Say About Mental Health?
Although sensational opinions do garner attention in the mainstream media, most faith-based leaders encourage a balance between faith and sound medical practice, and there is plenty of evidence of faithful followers in the bible that dealt with their own mental health issues. The bible is full of examples of those who have exhibited symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.
For example, Naomi developed trauma following the death of her husband and both of her sons and was forced to return to her homeland with her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Depression had such an effect on Naomi that the people from her home did not even recognize her, but at no point in the book of Ruth is Naomi blamed by God for the death of her family or for the depression she experiences following her trauma. In fact, the story of Naomi and Ruth is used in the bible to illustrate how a hopeless situation can have a positive outcome with the help of a strong social network. Neither Ruth nor Naomi was able to overcome the adversity alone. The story begins in tragedy, with the death of Ruth and Naomi’s husbands, but because Ruth and Naomi are loyal and faithful even during their depression, they are ultimately rewarded. They are rewarded for their loyalty to God, but it is clear throughout the book of Ruth that the women can overcome because they have each other, a strong support system to rely on, not just rewarded for their faith alone.
Many, many other examples exist. Elijah spends forty days in the wilderness so distraught that he cannot even take care of his own needs and he begs God to take his life. David, one of the most important figures in the bible, documents his own depression throughout the book of Psalms.
A Supportive Faith Leader Will Encourage You to Seek Treatment
If seeking counsel from a religious leader to assist with an ED, choose a faith leader who understands mental health, mental illness, and the importance of treatment. A well-informed leader should dispel the stigma associated with mental illness and treatment and encourage you to seek treatment in addition to the support you find within your faith community.
Support from the faith-based community and its leaders can be a positive addition to a comprehensive treatment plan but finding a leader who will work alongside your treatment team is vital. Pastors who deny the need for evidence-based practice are harmful to your mental health and recovery. The guilt associated with their teachings can actually be a trigger for anxiety and eating disorders. A supportive faith leader will encourage you to seek treatment, applaud you as you work toward your therapy goals, and pray for your continued success.