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Religion, Faith, Spirituality, and Mental Health. Where’s the crossroads?

Religion…. A word that comes with baggage. What’s the first thing you think when you hear “religion”? Perhaps you think of your religion, church, or other place of worship. Perhaps you think about the controversy that has surrounded religion and all the negative that has come out of it.

Spirituality…. Definitely associated with religion, but probably evoking more thoughts about how one internally understands their religion or belief system.

Faith…. Now personally, this is a hard one for me to pin down. Faith, to define it succinctly, is belief/confidence/trust in someone or something. In terms of religion, your faith is your confidence in the truth, as you understand it, in a belief system, whether that’s an organized religion or your own belief system.

My own experience with faith and religion goes something like this:

When I was a teenager, for probably a multitude of minuscule reasons, I didn’t like religion [as I understood it] and I certainly didn’t like church. I didn’t get it. When I was 15 or 16 years old, in a deep depression and dealing with more than I had the capacity or will to understand, I spent a lot of time watching documentaries. It was just what I did when I wanted to shut out the world around me. One day I turned on PBS and found myself just in time for the beginning of a documentary called “The Buddha”. It was about the Buddha’s life and the beginnings of Buddhism. I was enthralled. I mean, usually I’d watch a documentary and think ‘yeah that was interesting’ and move on. But this time, I couldn’t get this story out of my head. I spent a lot of time after that studying Buddhism on the internet. I read about principles, practices, and meditations (though I never gave them a solid shot in practice). Eventually, I had learned all that I cared to as an outsider to the religion.

Two years later, my interest was revitalized and I started reading again, and this time not just about the religion. I started reading the scripture. I learned about Buddhist meditation and started meditating. This time was much better. It was shortly after this that I understood faith for the first time. I mean really understood it. No joke, I was meditating one morning when I had a bit of an epiphany. “What if it (i.e. organized religion) is all just made up and faith is something that we feel in our hearts? What if there is no one correct religion or belief system? What if some people are just wired to feel faith through God? And others in nature? Or in any particular scripture?”

Those thoughts kind of blew my mind. But it wasn’t just that I had this revelation in my conceptual understanding of religion. I realized that I now knew what faith felt like, and truthfully, I don’t really know how to explain that feeling, but it felt good.

From that point on I was compelled to adopt compassion and appreciation for the world and the people around me as the foundations of my belief system, and this gave me the happiness and sense of satisfaction I had been seeking for a long time, which I can only imagine is the same feeling that other people get from their religion/faith. I also started to understand religious communities and their importance. I learned that religion/spirituality/faith is something personal, and when you feel attached to your faith, your entire state of well being is elevated.

Now, of course, this is merely my personal understanding, based on my experience, of how faith and religion/spirituality can help improve mental health. Therefore, I’ve done some snooping around the internet for you.

According to NAMI, faith and spirituality can improve mental well being by providing people with an increased sense of togetherness and community, a sense of understanding, and increased opportunities to help others. Taking the time to learn about faith-based practices can also give you the opportunity to learn new perspectives, habits, and tools to improve your well being. Some people find solace in praying, reading, singing, or making art, just to name a few examples. For many people the ritual involved in some religious practices is also beneficial. For me, meditation, positive social interactions, and remembering what Buddhism has taught me are my most important self-care practices.

Sure, religion can be a hard topic to approach in some environments, and sometimes it comes with negative connotations that make it look intimidating or difficult or judgmental, and that’s just about the last thing we need when we’re living with or recovering from a mental health challenge. You could say that religion has a certain stigma attached to it, but that’s our specialty, right? Besides, the good news is that religion and spirituality are not scary and they’re not there to make you into someone you’re not.

Don’t get me wrong, spirituality isn’t a cure-all for mental disorders. It also isn’t a one size fits all, with many people never even feeling the need to have a spiritual or religious connection, and that’s perfectly okay. However, if faith is something you’re looking for, I’d be willing to bet that you can find something that’s going to float your Ark, if you know what I mean. For students, I’d highly recommendation taking a look around your campus or your school’s website. Maybe there’s an office of Religious Life or a webpage that lists all of the active student groups or affiliated places of worship in the community. Then, do yourself a favor and reach out to them. Find out about upcoming events or weekly worship times. In my experience, faith communities have been some of the most welcoming groups of people I’ve ever met.

Or maybe you already knew all of this and I’m preaching to the choir (pun definitely intended). And maybe your chapter is interested in tackling the subject on your campus. What then? Why not reach out to a religious or spiritual group on campus? Maybe suggest a collaboration in the form of a discussion about mental health and religion. Or find a film or television show that introduces the topic and have a public showing (with snacks of course). Or do some more research and then table about the benefits of religious/spiritual connection on mental health and start a discussion that way. Get creative and don’t be afraid to start an awkward or difficult conversation. I mean that’s what we do here at Active Minds, right?

Russell is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee and a chapter leader at the University of Maine.