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Faith and Mental Health

Kim Kuopus, Sara Pirness, Troy Riutta | The Voice of Zion October 2022 - Home and Family Article --

Humans are physical, mental and spiritual beings. Over the course of our lives, we may struggle or have hardships in any of these areas of lives. Diseases and illnesses can come. We learn in God’s kingdom how to care for spiritual distress. In addition, God has blessed us in our time with resources to address those things that compromise physical and mental health. In this Home and Family feature, three healthcare professionals share their thoughts on mental health, treatment of mental illness and how these topics relate to our faith. Kim Kuopus, Troy Riutta and Sara Pirness are siblings who are all nurse practitioners in the field of psychiatric mental health.

How important is mental health to our life of faith? Anyone can have a mental illness – how might faith life be impacted?

Troy: Mental health is important to our life of faith.

Sara: Faith and spirituality are widely considered to be a positive influence on psychological well-being.

Kim: When we are mentally healthy, we can be free, joyful and happy in our day-to-day life. When mentally healthy, it is easier to manage the stressors and demands of everyday life with patience, love, and tolerance. It is easier to be a willing worker in God’s kingdom when we are mentally healthy.

Sara: The reverse is interesting to ponder. If one is struggling with depression, anxiety or even psychosis, thoughts can become skewed and clouded, perceptions may be more negative than what is reality.

Kim: If we suffer with social anxiety, going to services, attending church camps and visiting others’ homes becomes difficult. One can make excuses to stay home and avoid these social activities.

Troy: A person may find it difficult to attend services and have fellowship with believers due to symptoms that accompany mental illness. This can lead to isolation, temptation, and falling away from faith.

Sara: A person may even struggle to feel the freedom and joy that comes with forgiveness of sins if they are often burdened with feelings of sadness or angst that persist for no apparent reason.

Kim: Whether we are single or have a spouse and children, we do not want our social anxiety to interfere with bringing our families to church, gathering in others’ homes and attending camps. Some people are introverts and prefer smaller gatherings and quiet time at home. This is normal for their personality. Social anxiety is different than being an introvert, however. Social anxiety causes distress and can be disabling when a person leaves the familiar surroundings and comfort of their home.

Why might depression or anxiety cause a believer to stay away from services?

Troy: Depression and anxiety can make it difficult for a believer to attend services in different ways.

Sara: A common symptom of depression and anxiety is to withdraw, or self-isolate. For those who are struggling mentally, it is not uncommon to even withdraw from close friends and family.

Troy: An individual with depression often has low energy, low motivation, lack of joy, hopelessness, sadness, feelings of guilt and worthlessness.

Kim: They may feel weighed down and have difficulty functioning. Everyday tasks may become immense and overwhelming. When our mood is at a low point and very few things bring joy, even the task of going to services may become a burden.

Sara: For the depressed or anxious these events can be excruciating even when there is a desire to be there.

Troy: Those who have anxiety feel nervous and on edge. Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling that is often worse in social situations. For these individuals, being in crowded areas may trigger heightened levels of anxiety and a sense of fear or impending doom. To minimize their anxious feelings, many people will try to avoid crowds or large gatherings. It is important to seek treatment if mental illness is a barrier to attending services and having fellowship with the believers.

How could mental health impact relationships and home life?

Kim: As explained above, depression and anxiety can keep us from attending services, visiting with others and attending camps. In the home, if we suffer from depression or anxiety, small stressors can become big problems. The busyness of caring for a family may feel overwhelming and we can become impatient with our loved ones.

Sara: Mental health massively impacts the quality of daily life and interaction with others. Poor sleep, high stress, emotional fatigue, apathy and irritability can influence a person’s speech and behavior towards others. Left untreated, the atmosphere of the home can become tense and feel less like a place of refuge.

Kim: Our children and loved ones can suffer from our depression and anxiety, as it may manifest itself in intolerance and impatience.

Troy: For example, a parent suffering from depression or anxiety may find it difficult to focus on or spend quality time with their children. They may be consumed with internal pain and anguish.

Sara: Children sense angst keenly and might even blame themselves for a parent’s unhappiness.

Troy: It can be difficult for a parent with mental illness to fulfill parental duties or put in effort to maintain a healthy relationship with their spouse. This can result in one person having to take on extra duties within the family, leading to frustration, hardship, and strained relationships.

Kim: We can wonder if this is how life was meant to be and may question God’s plan for our future.

What about postpartum depression?

Kim: After having a baby, a mother may experience feelings and moods that are unfamiliar to her. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, irritability and increased anxiety may be common.

Troy: Postpartum depression is often confused with the “baby blues” that many mothers experience as their bodies are going through hormonal changes after giving birth. The baby blues typically begins within a few days after delivery and resolves within a couple of weeks.

Kim: Some mothers are on “high alert” and worry about the new baby’s safety and the safety of their other children so much, they start to lose the joy of caring for little children. Their focus may turn to the many tasks of raising little ones, and the wonder and joy that children bring to our lives may become lost.

Sara: Postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety can interfere with the critical early months of an infant’s development, having a lifelong impact.

Troy: While anyone can experience postpartum depression, those with a history of depression prior or during pregnancy are at higher risk of having postpartum depression.

Kim: In all, symptoms can become distressing and disabling.

Sara: Fortunately, these conditions are highly treatable with therapy or medication.

Do people know when they need help? Where should a believer go for help?

Sara: Mental illness can manifest in different ways. Some people may overcompensate with a bright mood to hide emotional pain or they may seem dismissive and uninterested.

Kim: Sometimes the person suffering from a mental illness is not aware that their symptoms are creating conflict and tension in the home and workplace.

Troy: Most people know something is wrong because they feel bad, but they often do not know what it is or why they are feeling bad. As a result, too many people wait a long time, often years, before they seek treatment. Some may not realize how badly it is affecting them – but loved ones such as family and friends might notice.

Kim: Sometimes the loved ones around the person suffering with mental illness are the ones to encourage the loved one to seek help.

Troy: Depending on what a person is experiencing, there are different avenues to seeking care.

Sara: A believer can always talk to a trusted loved one and others who have struggled in similar ways. In some cases, professional help is also recommended and there are a variety of treatment options.

Kim: When we talk to someone who may be depressed, remind the loved one that God wants us to be happy and joyful, and if mental illness is taking away from our happiness, it would be good to seek professional help for our symptoms.

Troy: If one is severely depressed and having thoughts of suicide, this is an urgent matter, and they should go to the emergency room. In less severe cases, people can go to their family doctor and explain what they are experiencing, and the condition can sometimes be treated by the family doctor, or it can be referred to a specialist.

Kim: A believer can seek help by seeing their primary care provider or a mental health provider (psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner). These professionals will evaluate and refer as necessary. Sometimes bloodwork is ordered to rule out another medical condition that may affect our mood. A psychotherapist or psychologist may be part of a treatment plan. Often the quickest and most robust response to treatment is a combination of medication and talk therapy. When the feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness and anxiety are alleviated, patience and happiness may be restored. Professional help is worthwhile.

Does mental health therapy conflict with faith?

Kim: There is no conflict between faith and mental health care. Conversely, as mentioned, mental illness and a suffering mood can eat away at the joy of believing.

Troy: Therapists are trained to respect people’s beliefs so it would be unethical for them to try to dissuade someone from believing.

Sara: An ethical and professional therapist will not try to dissuade their client from believing. If an individual is experiencing some conflict with their spouse, for example, suggesting divorce would be considered unethical. Unfortunately, as in any profession, not all therapists heed best practice, and such an experience is possible. But there is still much to be gained from quality therapy: actual physiological changes in the brain can occur, and most people will benefit.

Troy: Research indicates that religion is a protective factor against drug and alcohol abuse and suicide and has other mental health benefits.

Kim: Sometimes unforgiven sin, perhaps tied to a trial we are struggling with can cause depression, anxiety or irritability – similar symptoms of a mental illness. A therapist may not understand that our mental anguish is due to struggles in our faith life. The therapist who is not believing does not understand how a pricked conscience can cause angst. When we are in battle with our conscience, our mood is not happy.

The therapist’s role is to help alleviate negative thoughts and beliefs. The therapist may encourage a believer to avoid activities or people that are causing grief – and in doing this, the believer may hear: I need to stay away from church, stay away from people reminding me of my sin. When faith is most important, we know this type of advice is wrong.

Troy: It is important to be open about our beliefs if something is said or recommended that is contrary to our faith.

Sara: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one example of a potentially useful approach for those who want to better manage their stressors, as it does not promote avoidance.

Kim: Having talk therapy or psychotherapy may help us see what we are battling with internally, but a faith matter should be dealt with through confession with a believer so forgiveness, and peace and contentment can once again be ours.

Why are so many people who are addicted to drugs also suffering from mental illness? What is the connection?

Troy: This is a topic of much research. There are multiple factors involved in addiction and mental illness.

Kim: When people struggle mentally, they may turn to alcohol, marijuana and other substances to alleviate and uplift their mood. The drugs and alcohol can cause a false sense of euphoria. Worries, anxieties and insecurities are forgotten for a brief time.

Sara: Individuals who are addicted to drugs may be self-medicating a mental illness that may or may not have been diagnosed.

Troy: This form of “self-medicating” is usually short lived and then the person finds themselves struggling with both mental illness and addiction. In other cases, people who are addicted to drugs can develop mental illness from the effects of the drug itself.

Kim: The substance abuse may worsen their mood and mental illness over time, creating a cycle that is difficult to break.

Sara: Most clients I’ve treated with substance use disorders also have a history of complex trauma. For many, the unmatched strength of illicit drugs on the suffering brain brings the greatest relief but is never sustainable.

Troy: Both mental illness and addiction have a partial genetic basis in that certain genetic traits increase a person’s risk of mental illness or addiction. However, unlike mental illness, addiction is preventable in every case if a person does not use drugs or alcohol.

What can I do if I think that a family member is depressed or overly anxious? Is there a good way to approach family members about seeking help?

Troy: Approach them with love and let them know that depression or anxiety is common, and many suffer from it.

Sara: If a family member is depressed or overly anxious, it might help to bring one’s own experience into light. Mental health is on a sliding scale, and all of us will experience some degree of struggle at different times in life.

Troy: Mental illness is not something someone should be ashamed of or hide. People can seek treatment for mental illness just like someone with another illness can seek treatment.

Kim: With love and patience, one can encourage someone struggling with their mood to seek professional help. You can help in finding a mental health professional or therapist for them, making the appointments for them or even accompanying them to the appointments. Remind your loved one that they do not have to struggle with their low mood or anxieties.

Sara: Normalizing mental health care is critical. There is no shame in caring for your physical or mental health, and your loved ones will be better off for it.

Troy: It is important to minimize the stigma that has long been associated with mental illness.

Kim: And if you are the person struggling with mental angst, listen to your loved one’s concerns and entreaties. Seek professional help.

Discussion Questions

1. How are a clean conscience and mental health intertwined? How can our faith support our mental health?

2. In what ways can a congregation support its members’ mental health?

3. Discuss appropriate ways to discuss a person’s mental health with the person in question.

4. Besides mental illness, what other obstacles could impact a believer’s faith life?

5. What portions of the Bible help us understand mental illness?

2022_10_Pub_OctVZ_HF_Faith and Mental Health
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