Advice | How faith can get in the way of seeking mental health care – The Washington Post

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“Doc, I’ll be honest with you,” a new patient in my therapy practice said. “I don’t really want to be here, but I’ve tried everything else, and my sister finally pushed me to come see you.”
She said she had been trying to stay stoic in the face of hardship and accept God’s decree for her life. But many nights spent in prayer didn’t seem to help her heal from a childhood trauma that was retriggered by a recent incident.
In our sessions, she said that her reluctance to seek therapy stemmed from her belief that it would complicate her relationship with God. It would be as though she was asking for help from someone other than God.
Her story is not unique.
A review article shows that individuals across faith groups may use their religious beliefs as reasons to not seek help — a phenomenon known as spiritual bypassing — because they believe that God is testing them in a special way, that faith alone will suffice or that they are deserving of hardship.
As health-care professionals involved in mental health research and community and clinical work, we have seen this phenomenon in our own Muslim community. But we also know that while the concerns are real and rooted in a commitment to faith, they may also be the result of misunderstanding aspects of faith.
In many world religions, hardships and challenges are understood to be a part of life, but are never meaningless or intended to hurt people. Rather, the teachings go, God places us in difficult situations to help us realize our dependence on Him, illuminate our blessings in a new light or learn lessons that help us grow spiritually.
When you are going through a hard time — try to find the lesson in it, take actionable steps to move past it and use the experience to strengthen your trust in a loving God.
In Islam, individuals are responsible for caring for their bodies and minds, and this includes seeking appropriate help. This message is echoed in many of the world’s major faith traditions, but perhaps not always underscored when it comes to mental health.
One of the ways we encouraged the patient, an observant Muslim, to seek therapy was by quoting this saying of the prophet Muhammad, “O servants of God, seek treatment. Verily, Allah did not send a disease but that He also sent its treatment or cure.”
This wisdom encourages the faithful to seek help for illnesses — including mental illnesses — and they can do this without thinking that they are betraying other religious ideals such as reliance on God or belief in fate.
And the care should be appropriate — we should seek help from professionals and not limit it to self-help books, online resources, or friends and family. Nonprofessional resources, even if well-meaning, can sometimes be detrimental without proper guidance.
Faith should help us feel empowered to seek help even if, at the outset, we are unsure of its effectiveness.
For the patient, discovering that her religion encouraged mental health care was a significant motivator in her decision to seek therapy. For others, seeking guidance from support systems or an inner reflection may help them reach the same conclusion.
Not every person of faith, however, feels equipped or comfortable seeking mental health care, and religious beliefs can complicate the process. Here are a few ways to make it easier to access care.
Religious individuals often find it tough to seek care because they rarely hear about mental health in religious settings and about religious beliefs in health-care settings.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and there are many examples of religion and mental health being merged.
If you are a member of a faith community pursuing therapy, talk about your religious beliefs. Likewise, as you engage with your religious community, find ways to talk about mental health.
The simple act of speaking about each topic in new settings can help reinforce the natural connection between the two and make it easier for others to seek help, too.
Many people don’t click with the first therapist. Similarly, many religious individuals don’t feel immediately welcomed in some faith communities. Both therapy and religious experience can be a trial-and-error process, and that’s okay.
Don’t get discouraged if your therapist isn’t familiar with your religious beliefs or isn’t able to integrate them into therapy. It may require more searching on your part, or more learning on their part.
In the same way, don’t give up on your religious community if they aren’t able to discuss mental health in a way that makes the connection seem natural. It takes time, but it will happen.
It can be uncomfortable to start therapy and feel pressured to change your beliefs or worldview, especially because a large part of therapy can be to challenge your beliefs and thinking patterns. But it helps to remember that you are in charge — you’re letting a mental health professional into your world, not vice versa.
Feel confident and empowered to state your religious beliefs clearly and openly with your therapist and develop trust that they will help you navigate your mental health challenges without pushing back on your faith. Our lab recently created a step-by-step process for navigating therapy that you may find useful.
With time, my reluctant patient came to see her therapy sessions as experiences that bolstered her faith, not ones that disqualified it.
“I thought that talking to you meant that I was complaining about what God has decreed for me,” the patient said. “But I’m glad that I’m here now and feel that God must have led me to you.”
Rania Awaad, MD, is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab, and president of Maristan — a holistic mental and spiritual wellness nonprofit group serving Muslim communities.
Taimur Kouser, MA, is an MD candidate at Stanford University School of Medicine and a researcher at the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab.
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