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Reflections on faith and mental health


The interaction between mental health and faith is complex.  Each can influence the other.  Western models of psychology have tended to overlook the importance of spirituality in relation to mental health, but there is a move to including spirituality as we learn more from other cultures. 

One framework I have found particularly useful in my practice as a clinical psychologist is Mason Durie's Maori model of health, whare tapa wha (Durie, 1994). This model is also helpful as we look at the interaction between mental health and faith. It uses the analogy of a house whose walls represent the different dimensions of health.  The four dimensions are: thoughts/feelings (te taha hinengaro), spirituality (te taha wairua), physical health (te taha tinana) and family/relationships (te taha whanau).  Durie's model suggests that ill-health occurs when there is some imbalance between the four dimensions; difficulties in one dimension can create stress which affects the other dimensions.  This can be illustrated in the relationship between mental health and faith.

Our faith doesn't tend to take a straightforward route.  Transitions in life and faith are marked by upheavals as we negotiate our way between the known and the unknown.  Transitions between faith stages have been described as ‘shipwrecks' due to the degree of distress and uncertainty created (Jamieson, 2004). This isn't surprising when you consider that these transitions are often triggered by critical events.  We move between stages of faith when the current phase we are in can no longer account for what we experience. 

In 1981, Rabbi Kushner wrote the book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” after his young son was diagnosed with a terminal illness. He wrote it for people who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to hold on to their faith…and for all those people whose love of God and devotion to Him led them to blame themselves for their suffering and persuade themselves that they deserved it."   

The types of thinking described by Kushner reflect thinking styles which, when entrenched, are often associated with depression.  Part of effective treatment for depression in this type of situation may well be for the person to adjust their knowledge and understanding of God by working through the implications of this critical event for their faith. 

The Western paradigm of developmental psychology also refers to transitions, such as the turbulent one between adolescence and adulthood.  Teenagers try to figure out where they fit in, develop their own identity, and move away from family.  This period is generally fraught with anxiety and moodiness. In transitions within both life and faith, it makes sense that there is a psychological impact as people face and work through the big questions.  It may be uncomfortable and utterly distressing, but there is an opportunity for growth if we are able to reflect on our psychological responses, by making sense and meaning out of our experiences. 

For some people, however, there is a point at which these psychological responses to transitions in life or faith cross a threshold, whereby they actually contribute to or trigger a mental health crisis.  Variables which will help to distinguish mental illness from adjustment include the frequency, intensity, duration and onset of the symptoms.  If a person's daily functioning is significantly disrupted, or there is some sense of utter hopelessness or complete loss of control, it is important for the person to get help from a GP or local mental health services. 

Experience of mental illness can in itself be a critical event which precipitates faith transition.  Episodes of depression can erode self-confidence as well as faith; with the effects lingering even after mood has lifted.  When people's worlds are turned upside down, some reach for their faith to sustain them.  Others find it difficult to know what to believe any more, and have to renegotiate the basis of their faith. As with other critical events which trigger faith crises, this process of change as a response to mental illness can increase the depth and resonance of faith. 

Doubts can be seen as an inevitable accompaniment to faith.  Mark Pierson, then pastor at Cityside Baptist in Auckland, once described doubts as the ‘ants in the pants of faith.'  Ignoring these niggling questions, especially when they relate to our own life experiences, can stifle our emotional expression, with negative consequences for our relationships, physical and mental health.The opportunity to express our thoughts and name our feelings is an important part of maintaining both faith and mental health.  “We put terrible pressure on our minds when we tighten them or when we harden our views or beliefs; we lose all the softness and flexibility which makes for real shelter, belonging and protection.  Sometimes the best way of caring for your soul is to make flexible again some of the views that harden and crystallise in your mind; for these alienate you from your own depth and beauty.”  (O Donohue, p135)

Considering the phenomenon of attachment between primary caregivers and their children also provokes interesting questions about how faith interacts with mental health.  What we learn in our earliest interactions with those meeting our basic needs (usually parents) influences how we relate to other people as teenagers and adults, especially in significant relationships.  This includes our relationship with God.  Broadly speaking, if our parents were available and responsive to our signalled needs as infants and children, then we learn that we are able to communicate with others who value and care for us.  However, if our needs were inconsistently met or misunderstood by our caregivers, we become anxious and uncertain about how to communicate with others, and learn to doubt our own self-worth.  The implications for our faith relationship with God, then, include difficulty accepting that we matter or that God is at all concerned about us.  In his book, Anam Cara, John O'Donohue wrote, “The way that you think determines what you will actually discover… Thoughts are our inner senses…If your thoughts are impaired or if they are negative or diminished, then you will never discover anything rich or beautiful in your soul.” (p 139-140)

When were at a point in our faith where we feel positive and close to God, it's easier to overcome earlier experiences of feeling let down.  However, it may be that these underlying beliefs resurface under the strain associated with significant stressors. We lose our ability to rely on God's faithfulness.  If we are aware of our own patterns of relating to significant others, then we can better understand how we relate to God, and adjust our expectations accordingly.  Enhancing our mental health through increased self-esteem and healthier relationships flows on to enhance our faith.

Haidee Westwater


Haidee Westwater is a clinical psychologist who works for Wellington mental health services, currently with young adults.  She takes a holistic perspective, looking at the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour as well as the dimensions of physical health, spirituality and relationships.  She is also interested in the interaction between life stage transitions and mental health. 


Durie, M. (1994). Whaiora: Maori Health Development.

Jamieson, A.  (2004).  Called Again: In and beyond the deserts of faith. 

Kushner, H.  (1981).  When Bad Things Happen to Good People. 

O'Donohue, J.  (1997).  Anam Cara: Spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world. 

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