I don’t know why I put such time into a reply such as this, given that many people will only read the first couple of paragraphs. But here is my reply to the question, nevertheless:
Does religion help people with mental illnesses?
First of all, this question needs to be tidied up. There is no such entity as “religion”. If so, where does it hold its annual meetings? Does it have a board which decides matters of policy? “Religion” is simply a miscellaneous bin into which all sorts of ideas are thrown – often incompatible ideas. For example, Buddhism as a philosophy which does not hold to any supernatural entities. Ancient religions of the Middle East where the “god” was simply a personification of the city or the empire as the highest goal its inhabitants should serve.
On this site, the question should be, “Does the Christian Faith help people with mental illness?” This leads to two prior questions, “What is the Christian Faith?” and “What is mental illness?”
In a nutshell, the Christian Faith is the belief that we have received a provisional experience of the kingdom of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Various words are used for this in the New Testament, such as foretaste, down payment and first instalment. The idea is that all these things properly belong to the “End”; but we have experienced a foretaste as a pledge of the fullness which will come in the future. Perhaps the best analogy is that of a credit card, where one can spend the money one will have in the future, in the here and now. However, there is a credit limit which constrains how much of the future one can have in the present.
The salvation envisioned in the “End” events is all-embracing. It includes the human person in body, mind and spirit. Thus, Jesus brings such healing in his earthly ministry. It also includes all of Creation (including your pet dog), as St Paul makes clear in Romans 6.
So then, what is mental illness? And is it illness of the mind or also illness of the body? The modern approach to mental illness was initially proposed by Sigmund Freud and modified by the “post-Freudians”. It involved conflict between the various levels of the mind (id, ego, superego). One aim of the Freudians was to bring issues repressed into the id to the surface in order to deal with them. Freud’s approach, exclusively known as “psychoanalysis”, has been severely criticized for its validity (Is that really what’s going on in the mind?), and its reliability, (Can several therapists actually come up with the same diagnosis of the same person?).
In order to escape such subjectivity, learning theorists developed a theory called “Behaviorism” where associations with stimuli (classical conditioning) or behavior followed by reward (instrumental conditioning) shaped behavior. B.F. Skinner championed an extreme form of behaviorism wherein “one can assume the presence or absence of consciousness without it affecting the problems of behavior one jot or one tittle”. Less extreme forms admitted consciousness and its thought processes in the school of “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. As far as Behaviorists are concerned, there is no distinction between the ordinary psychological processes and those involved in mental illness. Examples of applied Behaviorist theory include systematic desensitization and the view that depression is caused by a low level of response-contingent positive reward.
After the Behaviorists came the Third Force psychologies , like those of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. These focused on self-actualization in a climate of unconditional love.
A major breakthrough occurred with developments in psychobiology. The brain operates by means of electrical signals along neurons, but the neurons are separated by spaces called synapses in which the electrical signals are conveyed chemically. Things like prolonged stress or inherited predispositions can lead to depletion of these chemicals and give rise to things like depression and anxiety, bi-polar depression, and schizophrenia. The solution lies in the prescription of psychoactive medications placing this area firmly in the area of psychiatry.
Of course, there are other schools of psychology, but this blurb cannot go on forever. Perhaps there needs to be mention of the pseudo-psychologies which consist of those playing at being Dr Phil. All sorts of derogatory claims are made about the motives of others and the beatification of oneself. These practices deserve our contempt.
So, what is the relationship between Christian Faith and mental illness?
Learn from God’s Creation
I think an important Christian insight is that God the Redeemer is one and the same as God the Creator. God the Creator has created a material universe in which there are causal links. As Christians, we must explore those links and identify causes and cures. God is not some sugar daddy in the sky who hops in and makes it better. This means that human efforts have real value and that the true heroes are not those with the biggest guns, but those in the lab and the clinic.
Work for the common good
Whether our gifts are natural or spiritual, we must exercise them for the common good. (See 1 Corinthians 12:1-7) Before he healed people of their infirmities, Jesus did not ask the person if they had health insurance! The health of all is a common good. We can see clearly what happens when the common good is neglected in the current pandemic. If vaccines only go out to those who can pay for it, the pandemic flourishes amongst the poor. In such an environment, numerous variants appear which negate the power of the original vaccines. We also see what happens when commerce is prioritized over the health and lives of people.
Mirror the kingdom of God on Earth
Christians can also work together to create a society which mirrors the kingdom of God. It is appalling to find that some people can work two fulltime jobs and still be stressed out over being able to pay for basic life essentials. That stress can lead to mental illness.
The Peace which passes Understanding
Yet above all of these remedies, there remains something that comes as a gift from God. Anxiety is a common element in much mental illness. Christ comes to bring us peace. In some places in the New Testament, we can see something that has echoes of cognitive behavioral therapy, when Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled … My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2 NIV) Tell yourself this, instead of the other narratives of self-talk. Yet St Paul speaks of the peace which passes understanding (Philippians 4:7) and which comes as a gift from God. I suppose that falls within the scope of a miracle given the anxiety from which many people suffer.