I follow PsychCentral on Twitter and I noticed a Tweet yesterday with a link to an article titled Spirituality and Mental Health. The title sparked my interest because I practice Buddhism and consider myself a spiritual person. I also rely considerably on my Buddhist practice to help support my mental health. I read the PsychCentral article which referenced another article on spirituality and mental health on a different blog, blog.christianitytoday.com, which in turn referenced yet another article on The Guardian website that finally led me to the original research study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The Guardian article states:
People who are “spiritual but not religious” are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses].”
The PsychCentral article basically stated that people who have an [organized] religious support network are better able to cope with the variety of stressful situations that occur as part of our everyday lives. She used the example of a new mom who experiences post-partum depression. A woman with a strong social and/or family support network will have others to talk to, to trust, to confide in, and to share both happiness and sorrows. A woman going through a difficult time alone will have much more difficulty, both emotionally and mentally. This made sense to me. I also believe that a strong social, religious/spiritual and family support network is crucial to make it through life’s toughest challenges, whether they are mental or physical or both.
What didn’t make sense to me was that the study drew such a definitive distinction between “spiritual” and “religious”, seemingly with the understanding that people who identify as “spiritual” do not belong to any type of religious organization and thereby lack a support network. Many people who do not belong to religious organizations have strong social and familial support networks. I don’t believe that participation, or in this case non-participation in organized religion will make an individual more prone to mental illness. The last sentence from the above quote, “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder” isn’t accurate. This seems to be merely a broad generalization about the causes of mental illness as well as what exactly constitutes a “spiritual understanding of life.”
I agree that organized religion is capable of providing a caring and supportive social network for its members. This is exactly what my own SGI Buddhist organization does for me (and so much more). It might be that well-established religious institutions are struggling with caring for their own members who are suffering from poor mental health. People who don’t belong to religious organizations aren’t any more vulnerable to mental disorders than anyone else, but people who have a strong social support network, religious or otherwise, will probably suffer less from mental illness and life’s myriad challenges.