Religious leaders often try to support the people they serve during difficult times. This supporting role has been particularly important in recent years as the nation grapples with a pandemic, social distancing and the loss of more than a million lives.
In a recent discussion sponsored by the Global Initiative for Religious Journalismacademics and religious leaders discussed faith-based mental health counseling, including its benefits and limitations.
Natasha Miklesassistant professor at Texas State University, moderated the discussion.
Academic panelists included Bryant Themetrauma psychologist, ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and professor at Pepperdine University and Rabbi Seth Winberg, Senior Chaplain to Brandeis Hillel at Brandeis University. Editor and author david morris also participated.
Here are some highlights of the discussion. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Natasha Mikles: Are there times when religion can be a source of stress rather than comfort for someone going through a difficult time?
Bryant Theme: Yes, religion can be used for healing and empowerment, and it can also be used to oppress, marginalize and shame. In psychology there is something called positive religious adaptation and negative religious adaptation. Positive religious adjustment is the belief that God ultimately loves and wants to help, and this is associated with positive mental health outcomes. Fundamentally believing that God is harsh and trying to penalize myself is associated with more negative religious outcomes and more negative mental health outcomes.
Seth Winberg: Yes, depending on the person and the circumstances, the faith, the traditions and the community in which one lives, faith can certainly be a burden, or a constraint, or a source of trauma. But for many people, faith offers a community, a social network, a sense of shared values, a rhythm of life and a common culture that I find very powerful.
david morris: Yes, too often people are given simplistic platitudes about how their loved one is in heaven. But as the grief goes on, they might be a little ashamed and tell them they should move on. But grieving takes time. There are many examples in religious literature of people in immense grief and immense sadness.
Natasha Mikles: What tools can religious professionals use to help people have a more balanced understanding of how their faith tradition views mental health?
Seth Winberg: In one page of the Talmud, there is an open dialogue that rabbis across generations and believers across generations have with each other. And I sometimes encourage students to feel free to try to talk to me or anyone else in this open way – to take the risk of asking questions that we might think we can’t ask everything. by being a person of faith. I think because of our modern, perhaps American, perception of the clergy, people don’t expect contemporary religious leaders or rabbis to be open to this kind of discussion. But it’s where rabbinic Judaism began.
Bryant Theme: Yes, I think ministers and other religious leaders have a wonderful role to play in promoting and creating space for mental health. And one of the parts is transparency. I’ve seen ministers in the pulpit talk about mental health issues, talk about their grief, or talk about themselves going to therapy. It can really open the door, let our humanity shine through.
Natasha Mikles: Over the past two years of the pandemic, have you seen a change in the types of things young people are struggling with?
Seth Winberg: What I have personally observed is a sort of suspended animation of the social, emotional and spiritual development of young adults. I think they really suffered from a lack of face-to-face interaction in various aspects of their lives, but particularly in their social and spiritual development. It’s really something to be physically distant from people in such an extreme way.
It’s not so obvious what the right faith-based answers are. One of them is just being present with people and being with them as they try to understand – not trying to give them answers and Bible verses, but just letting them express that feeling really uncertain. And making them feel like there’s a slightly older adult in their life who nods and lets them voice those doubts and questions, I think, can be helpful.
Bryant theme: I totally agree that a major challenge for young adults has been loneliness and disconnection. Another big piece is about injustice. Some shrines have fought for these issues, but other shrines have not only been silent, but have actually promoted truly oppressive practices. [ideas]. And I like to say that it’s healthy to be outraged by outrageous things. And there are outrageous things that have been done and said, even in the name of faith and religion. Young people not only need community and camaraderie, but [support in] fight against social injustice.
look the full webinar to hear panelists discuss the impact of COVID-19 on in-person faith traditions, clergy burnout, and share more practical tips for integrating mental health discussions into faith.