Mental-health outreach, spiritual communities can work together

By Kimya N. Dennis

It is estimated that one in four individuals and, therefore, one in four families are influenced by mental health conditions and experiences.

There is a wide array of more temporary and more lasting mental health conditions. As is the case with physical health, mental health is important for everyone and impacts everyone at varying levels of incidence and prevalence. Such variance in incidence and prevalence can be illustrated in demographic-group trends including but not limited to age, gender identity, sexual identity, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, family background, neighbourhood context, and spirituality, meditation, faith and religion.

Communities of spirituality, meditation, faith and religion (SMFR) are no exception to the overall impact of mental health. While SMFRs can be a source of strength and refuge, they can also make outreach and change difficult if matched with assumptions, judgment and stigma. Individuals and families dealing with mental health conditions need open and supportive environments in which they can be honest about life circumstances and receive the necessary support both within communities and with mental-health professionals.

This highlights the importance of mental health outreach, social support and social resources. There has been a traditional rift between health outreach efforts, counselling services and medical services. However, within this generation, more SMFR communities, organisations and institutions are more open and supportive of health outreach and efforts. More communities, organisations and institutions are encouraging members to be open to counsellors and medical remedies that are traditionally considered ‘worldly or ‘ungodly.’ Such openness to mental health services and medical services sometimes includes connecting the spiritual realm with the medical realm. For instance, people who believe in delivery from pain and conditions through meditation and prayer can combine prayer or meditation with counsellors or medical professionals. This integrates the sentiment that ‘prayer-meditation changes things,’ with the sentiment that counsellors and medical professionals were created and made available for a reason.

SMFR approaches must tackle the stigma of mental health conditions and challenge the notion that mental health treatment, and other medical treatment, is contrary to SMFR. Through encouraging dialogue and utilising health services, spiritual and faith-based communities have become less (perceivably) ‘preachy’ and ‘disciplinarian’ in their expressions of love and support. Rather, love and support are encouraged even when something defies understanding. Love and support are encouraged even if something does not match traditional teachings and traditional definitions.

Thankfully, more SMFR communities, organisations and institutions are focusing on physical health and mental health and forming relationships with mental health organisations that offer mental health screenings and support groups. This challenges the misconception that people defy SMFR through seeking professional treatment for medical conditions and medical concerns. Instead of defying beliefs, seeking advice and assistance from mental health professionals is an exemplification of SMFR.

Moreover, mental health outreach should reach a wide spectrum of people across a range of SMFR. In addition to expanding expressions of love and support, such outreach also requires a level of appreciation and acceptance of particular differences. Mental health outreach is not an opportunity to question someone’s SMFR. This includes people within communities of SMFR and across communities of SMFR. This also includes non-believers, agnostics and atheists.

The goal is to challenge the stigma and shame often associated with mental health conditions and to encourage mental health treatment. As is the case with physical health conditions, individual characteristics and group identities can be used for outreach purposes and to get support for outreach efforts. Individual characteristics and group identities should not be used to elicit guilt or make people feel they are defying cultural norms and expectations (eg, the myth that a ‘devout Christian’ does not ‘betray God’ by going to a medical doctor). The key is to discourage isolation and alienation and encourage community and integration on all fronts.

Essentially, mental health outreach is human outreach. There is a need for mental health outreach and equal access of resources across communities. Given the strength and historical and contemporary relevance of SMFR across cultures in the United States and around the world, such outreach and equal access can be met with support from these communities, organisations and institutions.

Kimya N. Dennis is an assistant professor and coordinator of Criminal Studies in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Studies at Salem College.

Reproduced with permission, originally posted here

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