I have a dear loved one who is very deep into their faith and unfortunately, wrestling with challenges in the area of mental illness. Certainly mental illness is complex and still taboo, particularly for black folks. It’s not something we discuss and more importantly, this means we often don’t seek help. In that the black experience is, historically speaking, deeply religious, it’s fair to ask whether or not religious devotion helps or enhances the risk of mental illness.
To my knowledge, there is no research that conclusively links religion with a heightened risk or experience of mental illness. At best, the research out there is a mixed bag: for example, religion has been shown to abate feelings of depression but spirituality (as opposed to religion) can also be positively associated with higher rates of depression. The key might very well be in that small distinction between religion and spirituality. In my thinking, religion is outward while spirituality is internal. That is, when practicing religion, one does so as ritual while spirituality is much more “serious” to the adherent, having real consequences in this life.
Deeply spiritual people believe that their prayers impact the world physically. They believe there are unseen forces that influence the world around them. Perhaps most alarming, an extreme level of spirituality allows people an escape from reality. One need not confront their circumstances or themselves: they can simply assign blame to evil forces or explain away disappointment by some other mystical process; i.e- God had a different plan or I will just wait for God to do it. While the detachment can be very dangerous, the consequences are indeed damaging. What happens when, after a lifetime of believing, that which is believed for never materializes? Depression and devastation are inevitable. What are the consequences of explaining all negatives away with otherworldly reasoning and failing to cope with reality?
No, the data isn’t conclusive. Still, something tells me that regularly disengaging from the real world can’t be helpful for one’s life prospects or ultimately, their grasp on reality. I must question whether complete hope and reliance upon the unseen (particularly for day to day essentials) will lead to severe disappointment, devastation and ultimately disillusionment and denial. As one becomes increasingly invested in an unseen realm, I think it is fair to question how well-adjusted they are mentally to this one.
I should be fair and admit that my questioning is mostly prompted by the negatives that I’ve witnessed and even felt personally in this area. Of course, many would point out the many well adjusted individuals they know who are themselves very religious or spiritual. I don’t know the answer either way but I’m not sure that we should easily dismiss the question.