The Relationship of Faith and Reason in Mental Health Care

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From before the time that Namaan dipped his flesh seven times into the Jordan in 849 B.C., man has looked to both the supernatural and the natural world for the keys to good health. The first mention of mental disorder in written history is a case of clinical depression noted in the age of Moses in the Ebers Papyrus of 1536 B.C., a medical journal which included magical incantations and herbal remedies as treatment for various disorders.  One of the Greek spiritual world’s god-heroes, Asclepius, bears a serpent-entwined staff which continues to be the symbol for medicine today. 

The Egyptians, Hindus, Persians and Hebrews all attributed mental illness to supernatural forces. In the case of the Hebrews, all suffering, mental and physical, was said to be punishment from God. In the 1600s, Native Americans used medicine men to treat mental illness while the Puritans blamed witchcraft and demonic possession.

The word “psychiatry,” coined in 1808, comes from the two words “psych” (soul) and “iatry” (medical treatment.)” A psychiatrist, then is a “soul doctor.” Such a description isn’t too far away from what we find in practice today. In a 2003 survey of patients, 83 percent wanted primary care providers to inquire about spiritual beliefs in some circumstances. In cases of life-threatening illnesses 77 percent wanted their provider to talk about spiritual beliefs; for serious medical conditions, 74 percent; and the loss of a loved one, 70 percent. In a 1999 survey of physicians, 74 percent reported that they attend religious services at least monthly while 79 percent reported a strong religious or spiritual orientation. In 2004 the Jewish Theological Survey in New York found that of 1100 physicians, seventy-four percent of doctors believed that miracles have occurred in the past. Seventy-three believed miracles can occur today, and 72 percent believed that religion is a reliable and necessary guide to life. More than half believed that religious moral teaching should guide medical practice.

The U.S. Government implies disagreement with these views. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website, NIMH is the “lead federal agency for research on mental disorders, supporting research that aims to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research.” Religion is mentioned nowhere on a search of their website as of this writing.

As for the Catholic Church, in his 1998 encyclical on Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio), Pope St. John Paul II said: 

“There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action.” 

Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible have many verses relating to emotions and mental health. One example is Philippians 4:7 – 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Those who reject science completely and seek only a faith-based solution for mental illness are invariably today branded as “kooks,” but if surveys of doctors and patients can be trusted, it seems that most people believe that faith and reason are both important for one to come to one’s full knowledge about one’s self, mentally and physically. Mankind has rejected, both in antiquity and today, the notion that good mental health care can only come from the physical world.

PHOTO CREDITS: MENKAURE, Daniel Mennerich, Nicolas Raymond, Lawrence O.P., rosefirerising

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