Religion and Spirituality

Helping people with psychiatric disabilities ‘live like everyone else’ often means – in addition to  addressing the educational, employment, and housing needs of consumers – also more seriously considering the role that religion and spirituality have for those with psychiatric disability.  The needs for religious connections has often been overlooked by the mental health community, but consumers are increasingly saying that this ‘domain’ of life is as important to them as any other

And why not:  religious and spiritual involvements are often key components of community life, as they can be a source of hope, emotional and social support, and a tool for coping. Almost all (96%) of the U.S. population say they believe in God or a universal spirit; 90% report they pray; and 43% attend religious services either weekly or more often (Princeton Religion Research Center, 1996; Fallot, 1998). This level of commitment is similar among individuals with psychiatric disabilities:  Kroll and Sheehan (1998) surveyed one hundred consumers and found that 94% indicated a belief in God or higher power and 70% said they were “moderately,” “considerably,” or “very” religious.

Attending to the religious needs of consumers may sometimes be especially important to members of minority groups.  Hispanics and African Americans, for instance, are more likely to seek help for their problems through the clergy. For many minority communities, such as the African American community, there is evidence that clergy are consulted more frequently than other professionals for help with personal problems, yet treatment referrals are not typical (Solomon, 1990; Taylor et al, 2000).

The Role of Religion and Spirituality in Recovery

Religion and spirituality are often associated with recovery.  This is often true for those deal with substance abuse problems, in part because religion and spirituality are associated with the popularity and success of 12-step programs. Sullivan (1993) found that 48% of respondents indicated that spirituality, which was defined broadly, was important in their recovery from their addictions.  Those with serious psychiatric disabilities also frequently rely upon religion to see them through:  in one survey, consumers listed the following as some of the reasons for their commitment to religion and spirituality: strength for coping; social support; a sense of coherence; and the feeling of being a “whole person.” In Lindgren and Coursey’s (1995) study, 74% of the participants said that religion or spirituality helped when they were ill.

Further, from the perspective of the community inclusion movement, the religious community offers an abundance of opportunities for connection.  Certainly, social groups and opportunities within an area’s churches and synagogues and mosques offer a wonderful opportunity to ‘live like everyone else’ and participate in the life of the community with a framework of one’s faith.  At the same time, religious organizations have also proven themselves remarkably response to the needs of disabled and disadvantaged groups, and can often be counted on – if offered the right supports and services – to extend themselves to include people with psychiatric disabilities in ways that other social organizations may find more difficult.  Finally, the ‘social responsibility’ mission of many religious groups offer an opportunity for the individual with a psychiatric disability to ‘give back’ to his or her community, being part of an altruistic endeavor.

Although many agree that religion and spirituality can be an important part of the recovery process, there is less agreement about the role it should play in therapy/treatment. Fallot (1998) points to the need for greater consideration of spirituality in programming for individuals with a serious mental illness. Bussema & Bussema (2000) found that participants’ faith stories lacked the emotional and social support typically gained from religious communities. Instead, most individuals reported they depend primarily on their peer support networks within the rehabilitation system. This raises concerns because both the religious community and mental health service providers often overlook religious and spiritual needs of individuals with psychiatric disabilities.

Key Questions for Consideration

The following are some questions that people who are in a position to assist people with mental illnesses might consider as part of their professional responsibilities.

For Mental Health Service Providers

  • How can we address the religious or spiritual needs of consumers in treatment?
  • What religious institutions exist in the community that could be a resource for our consumers?
  • Are these religious institutions aware of the services we offer?
  • Are the local clergy knowledgeable about the needs and interests of people with psychiatric disabilities? If not, how can we address this need?

For Church and Spiritual Leaders

  • Are we meeting the needs of all the members of our community?
  • Would members of our community feel comfortable approaching us with mental health concerns?
  • What mental health services are available for members of our community?
  • How can we form a link with mental health service providers to be sure that individuals with psychiatric disabilities in our community are getting all their needs met, in particular, their religious and spiritual needs?

For Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities and Their Families

  • How can my community be more helpful in dealing with adult relatives who have a serious mental illness?
  • What type of community treatment can meet my spiritual needs as well as my mental health needs?
  • How involved do you want your spiritual community to be in your mental health treatment?
  • In what ways would accessing information about mental health treatment be helpful to you and your community?

The following are some websites that address the issues of mental health and religion:


Bussema, K. E. & Bussema, E. F. (2000). Is there a balm in gilead? The implications of faith in coping with a psychiatric disability. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 24(2), 117-124.

Fallot, R. (1998). Spirituality and religion in recovery from mental illness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kroll, J. & Sheehan, W. (1989). Religious beliefs and practices among 52 psychiatric inpatients in Minnesota. AmericanJournal of Psychiatry, 146(1), 67-72.

Solomon, B. B. (1990). Counseling black families at inner-city church sites. In H. E. Cheatham and J. B. Steward (Eds.), Black Families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Sullivan, W. P. (1993). “It helps me to be a whole person”: The role of spirituality among the mentally challenged.Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 16(3), 125-134.

Taylor, R. J., Ellison, C. G., Chatters, L. M., Levin, J. S. and Lincoln, K. D. (2000). “Mental health services in faith communities: The role of clergy in black churches.” Social Work, 45(1): 73-87.