A recent research study by Holly Oxlander at Baylor University shows that religion and spirituality are very closely intertwined with mental health issues. This emerged very clearly from interviews with 55 racially diverse young adults.
Of course, this will probably depend on people’s cultural background. The more important religion is in the culture, the more likely people are to mention it when talking about their mental health issues. However, at least in Texas, US, (where this study was conducted), at the present time, religion is felt to be relevant to people’s experience with mental health issues. Over 60% mentioned religion when talking about mental health issues, without any prompting.
Much other research (reviewed in my recent book on Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, Cambridge University Press, 2017) has shown that how far religions people have mental health issues depends on the kind of religion involved. It has long been clear that more nominally religious people have more mental health issues than committed religious people. In fact, the nominally religious have worse mental health than non-religious people. In contrast, committed religious people have better mental health than non-religious people.
We are now just beginning to get research on the mental health of ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) people. It seems their mental health is often quite poor, and that they are often worried and have poor self-esteem, etc. We don’t know what is cause and effect here, but spirituality seems to be one of the domains in which people wrestle with personal issues.
One of the interesting things in this study is that religion is sometimes felt to be helpful, sometimes unhelpful. But it is almost always felt to be relevant, one way or the other.
It seems that negative experiences with religion were more often concerned with religious communities than with private religious experience. Sadly, a number of people reported not feeling supported, or receiving hurtful messages from religious communities. Those responsible for these negative experiences were probably well-intentioned and had no idea just how unhelpful they were being.
Private religious experience can probably also be helpful or unhelpful, though the indications from this study are that unhelpful private experiences are less common than unhelpful experiences with religious communities. There is a danger of people creating an image of God that entrenches their personal problems rather than helps with them.
For example, someone who is wracked with guilt would be helped by a strong sense of the forgiveness of God, and by a forgiving and accepting religious community. However, the danger is that guilt-ridden people will have an image of God as judgemental, and that entrenches their guilt. Sadly, religious communities can also exacerbate problems of guilt by being judgemental.
It is too simplistic to say that religion is all good, or all bad. The take-home message from this study is that, for people with mental health issues, being religious, or not, is more often relevant than is generally realised.