How To Tackle Depression – Part 1: Spirituality and Mental Health

In today’s society, depression is not just an increasing and worrying problem that some people face, but is in fact one of the world’s leading causes of disability worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 350 million people around our world suffer from the illness.  Though some forms of depression require invasive medical treatment, some kinds of primary depression can be solvable to a large degree by human mindset and mentality.  This series entitled ‘How to Tackle Depression’ will explore this issue from various angles. In Part 1, we address this issue in a more academic way, through the extensive research of a final year Medical Student.

Mental health is defined as the state of wellbeing of the mind of a person. This article will explore and discuss the various roles that religion and spirituality can play in tackling depression, with reference to current research on the topic.

According to the Qur’an, there are three states of man – the natural, moral and spiritual. These are spiritually progressive but also interdependent. The natural state of man has a very strong relationship with the moral and spiritual states, greatly so that even eating and drinking affects his moral and spiritual character [1]. It is suggested that different types of food affect the character and behaviour of an individual, for example those who abstain from eating meat gradually suffer a decline in the faculty of bravery and courage. This is reinforced by the evidence seen in nature whereby herbivorous animals do not possess the same degree of courage, as do carnivorous ones. Conversely, those who are given a diet consisting mainly of meat and eat very little vegetables suffer a decline of meekness and humility. Those who adopt the middle course develop both types of moral qualities [1]. It is suggested that this hugely reinforces the link between the lifestyle and habits of an individual and their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. In other words, the lifestyle that one lives affects not only their physical health, but also their attributes and their mental condition and sustaining good mental health.

One major aspect of life which religion provides to a society is a sense of community, allowing individuals to promote and strengthen their sense of faith in a collective manner, and share positive teachings of live and kindness to mankind. It is shown that such positive thoughts improve a person’s mental health. Furthermore, it is possible that perhaps a person with a greater state of mental health will have better coping mechanisms and a greater mental strength to avoid falling into prolonged states of hopelessness or depression.

The stigma attached to mental illness and being diagnosed with a medical condition has a significant effect on the social relationships of a person in the community, family and friendships. A great majority of society has a lack of knowledge causing a sceptical reaction towards mental illness. This unfortunate response often makes it challenging for patients to behave naturally and form strong relations in the view of such criticism. Not only religious groups, but also supportive family relations are critical to the recovery or ability to cope for many mental health patients. Researchers at the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health examined how social networks have a positive psychological impact upon patients suffering from mental illness [2]. Therefore, it is important as a society that we always remain kind, empathetic and supportive towards those suffering from mental health problems, rather than stigmatising them. It is through this kindness that people who are suffering the most can best recover.


Spirituality provides a deep sense of meaning to life and leads to a sense of belonging, safety and security


Unfortunately, the impact of religion on mental illness may not always be viewed from a positive perspective. The history and study of medicine reveals that many mentally ill patients, particularly those suffering with severe conditions such as Schizophrenia, were declared as being possessed by the devil, particularly during the medieval period, which is also sometimes referred to as ‘the dark ages’. The earliest record of recognition and treatment of mental illness was by a Muslim physician Abu- Bakr ar-Razi, who lived between 865-925. Al-Razi was a doctor responsible for the psychiatric ward in a Baghdad hospital. This was at a time, when, in the Christian world, the mentally ill were regarded as being possessed by the devil. He advised physicians to study medical literature constantly to gain new information and understanding therefore stimulating the interest in evidence based medicine [3]. However, even today religious beliefs and religious delusions vary across cultures. For example, in Switzerland, the belief in demons as the cause of mental health problems is a common phenomenon in Christians with a high profile of religiousness [4]. Furthermore, it is noted that even in the 21st Century, particular regions of underdeveloped Pakistan have a similar social understanding where mentally ill behaviour and seizures are regarded as being possessed by the ‘jinn’, a form of spiritual evil derived from their religious teaching. On the other hand, patients would relate that religion plays a central role in the process of reconstructing a sense of self and recovery. Some patients are supported by their faith communities and comforted allowing them to strengthen their beliefs. Other patients are rejected by their faith communities and are therefore disappointed and demoralised in their beliefs [4].

Though religious groups in the past have stigmatised mental illness, personal spirituality appears to be protective, resourceful and helpful for the wellbeing of such individuals. The Royal College of Psychiatrists explain that spirituality provides a deep sense of meaning to life and a sense of belonging, safety and security for the individual [5]. Moreover, other benefits suggested include better self-control, self-esteem and confidence, and this is of particular importance in preventing depression and suicidal behaviour.

In summary, mental health can be affected strongly by the outside world. The company we keep, the friends we make, and the attitudes of those around us strongly impact upon our risk of developing mental illness. Important factors in reducing this risk include close supportive social networks, and a sense of spirituality and meaning to one’s existence. A lesson to be drawn from the research cited is that, it is the responsibility of us all to be supportive and empathetic towards those suffering from mental health problems, since it is through our positive attitudes and interactions towards each other that we can help to reduce the incidence of such issues. Moreover, spirituality and the soul is greatly interlinked with the physical and mental state of man, perhaps more so than currently understood. It is suggested that maintaing good spiritual health is supportive towards good mental health.

Contributed by Hasham Ahmad

References:

  1. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam. Islam International Publications Ltd. 1979, 26-60.
  2. Noriko Cable, Mel Bartley, Tarani Chandola, Amanda Sacker. Friends are equally important to men and women, but family matters more for men’s well-being. Journal of Epidemiol Community Health, 2013, 67:166-171.
  3. Jim al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom, London, 2011, 146.
  4. Sylvia Mohr, Philippe Huguelet. The relationship between schizophrenia and religion and its implications for care. Swiss Med Weakly, 2004; 134:369–376.
  5. The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Spirituality and Mental Health. Health Advice. http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mentalhealthinformation.aspx (accessed 5 Mar2015).

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