Faith and Mental Health
P. Scott Richards, a professor in the Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department has helped stir up a pot that some would like to leave unstirred or even dump out altogether: the religious beliefs of clients seeking mental health services. He has cheerfully taken the rather unpopular stance that going to church, praying, and living a spiritual life help people to be physically and mentally healthy. He further believes – and can demonstrate – that therapists can use religious beliefs and practices to enhance their clients’ progress in psychotherapy.
Richards has worked extensively in collaboration with Allen Bergin (recently retired from BYU’s Psychology Department), a pioneer in the area of religion and mental health, whom Richards credits with serving as the “lightning rod” for the discipline. With Bergin, Richards has researched the effects of religion on “positive psychological functioning,” with a focus on mental health, rather than mental illness.
Richards currently serves as the President-Elect of the Psychology of Religion Division (Division 36) for the American Psychological Association and recently received the William C. Bier Award from Division 36 for his positive impact on the field of psychology. He has co-authored two books that are bestsellers for the American Psychological Association. A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and Psychotherapy takes the following basic premises:
- A good and caring God exists, is the creator of humankind, and acts on people’s behalf
- Humans are beings of body and spirit and “carry within them the germ or seed of divinity.”
- “Human existence is sustained through the power of God.”
- God and human beings are able to communicate through spiritual processes.
- “There is spiritual evil that opposes God and human welfare.”
- Humans can discern good and bad through the “Spirit of Truth.”
- Humans are responsible to “both God and humanity” for their choices
- Those who seek God’s help in their efforts to change and heal and grow may find that they have added power and strength to face their challenges and problems and overcome them.
- God’s plan is for people to choose good, even among life’s trials. (p. 76-77)
None of these premises sounds particularly outlandish to a religious believer, but they have generated significant controversy in the field of psychotherapy. According to Richards, Sigmund Freud called religion a “neurosis.” Richards also quotes Albert Ellis, a respected cognitive therapist and theorist, as saying, “The elegant self-therapeutic position is to be quite un-religious.” Thus, says Richards, Ellis taught that “the more religiously devout you are, the more emotionally disturbed you’ll be….He equated devout religiousness with emotional disturbance.” Similarly, according to Richards, nearly all of the mainstream theories “leave God out, they downplay the importance of people’s faith and spirituality in their theories about how human beings function and how they heal and change and grow.”
These and similar theories, Richards says, have had negative consequences in therapeutic practice: “Therapists have come into the counseling hour with this mind-set that religion is bad for people: it … doesn’t do anything to help the client, and at the worst it actually undermines their psychological well-being. So historically counselors have either ignored religion, tried not to talk about it with clients or changed the subject if clients bring it up…the worst is when someone has tried to influence their clients away from religious beliefs and involvement.”
Part of Richards’s research has sought to disprove the negative stereotypes about people who believe in God and live their religions. He has not had to look far for subjects: Several of his studies have focused on the religious lives of BYU students. According to Richards, “Most studies have shown that people who are religiously devout and committed…do tend to enjoy better psychological functioning. There is also some evidence that membership in the Church and conversion experiences help compensate for bad experiences earlier in life and set students on a more healthy, healing path in their lives.” He goes on to say, “There is a healthy way to be involved in religion and spirituality.” Richards and some of his doctoral students are following up with a large group of subjects first studied in the early 1980s, to assess their current psychological functioning and their feelings about their faith. He hypothesizes that the students who have remained involved with the Church will have positive effects from it evident in their lives.
Skeptics wonder whether religion causes better functioning, or whether better-functioning people are more likely to be active in their religion. While Richards acknowledges that these studies are correlational and do not directly show causation, he affirms that the weight of so many studies makes it clear that religion has positive effects, even for people who are in poor psychological health to begin with.
Some researchers have offered naturalistic explanations for the positive mental health effects of religions in people’s lives. For example, some have speculated that the social support available in a religious body helps the members to enjoy better health both physically and mentally. But Levin, Richards, and Bergin go beyond merely “naturalistic” explanations, writing and teaching that “God blesses those who seek to do His will and follow Him,” and that His children can receive both physical and emotional blessings.
Because Richards sees religion as a significant and healthy factor in people’s lives, he believes that therapists will reap rewards for trying to understand and respect their clients’ religions. In a nationally acclaimed book which he edited, The Handbook of Psychotherapy and Religious Diversity, the reader is introduced to a broad selection of religious traditions, including not only Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but also several Eastern religions. Richards’ goal is to help therapists – including non-religious ones – “increase their sensitivity to religious clients and help them tap into the resources of their faith.”
He also indicates that some studies show that taking religion into account even helps when the patient is a believe, but the therapist is an atheist. As long as the therapist is open minded enough to apply the concepts, he or she can help the client to tap into the client’s own spiritual resources in healing. In one study with depressed clients who were religious believers, when the therapists engaged the clients in religiously oriented activities such as scripture reading and meditation, the non-religious therapists did just as well as, or maybe even slightly better than, the believing therapists. And when a therapist is a believer but the client is not, while religious interventions might be meaningless to the client, Richards reminds us that therapists who remember their clients in their personal prayers may at times receive guidance from a Father who loves each client as His own child.