December 2016 \ News \ MIND AND BODY
Implications of spirituality for mental health

There has been an increasing recognition of the important implications of religion/spirituality (R/S) to health, specially to mental health.

By Dr Alexander Moreira-Almeida
  • Dr Alexander Moreira-Almeida

There has been an increasing recognition of the important implications of religion/spirituality (R/S) to health, specially to mental health. Based on this, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) has recently released a “Position Statement on Spirituality and Religion in Psychiatry”. Here we will discuss some aspects of the interface between R/S and mental health.

A negative view of R/S, considering it “primitive”, “superstitious”, “neurotic” and in inevitable conflict with science and medicine, prevailed in many intellectual circles during the last century. Several authors even foresaw R/S would disappear by the end on 20th Century. However, as we now know, R/S has changed but remains important for most humanity at the 21st Century. Given that, R/S has received much attention from medicine and science nowadays. Recent historical studies have found that interactions between R/S and medicine/science have been much more complex and usually positive than previously thought. In the last decades, more than 3,000 scientific studies have investigated the implications of R/S to health. These studies found that the several R/S dimensions (attendance to religious services, ways of framing life and its challenges, practices, experiences etc) are usually associated with better health outcomes such as lower mortality, depression, suicide, drug use/abuse and better quality of life.

Among the mechanism by which R/S impacts positively on health are: provision of social support, meaning to life and disease, healthy habits, and spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. Some examples of positive religious coping strategies are: trying to put plans into action together with God or some higher power, to learn God’s lessons in the stressor, engaging in religious activities to shift focus from the stressor. On the other side, although less frequent, some forms of R/S may be related to worse health and quality of life: opposition to medical/psychological treatments, emphasis on guilt and other negative religious coping strategies such as feeling punished or abandoned  by God or other spiritual entity, and passive deferral to God.

In addition, faith-based health organizations have made major contributions to public health. Hospitals were initially created in Christian and Muslim religious contexts. Currently, 30 to 70% of the health infrastructure in Africa is owned by faith-based organizations. Religious institutions run most of the almost 2,000 ‘philanthropic hospitals’ in Brazil, a country where more than 250,000 volunteers of the Catholic Children’s Pastoral Care track monthly 1.8 million underserved children with positive impacts on child development, mortality and criminality.