Debates about religion and mental health date back to the Middle Ages, when Christianity viewed deviant or ‘abnormal' behavior as a deed of demons or a result of sin. During this time, exorcism was deemed as an effective method for dealing with mental health problems. In the late Middle Ages, special asylums were set up to house mentally ill people. One of the oldest mental health institutions, the Bethlem asylum in London, also known as Bedlam, was established in 1247.
The causal relationship between religion and mental health has proved difficult to establish. Often studies seeking to identify links between religious observance and mental well-being have produced conflicting results. The issue has caused long-lasting controversy both in psychology and educational studies. Schumaker (1992) referred to a source of solutions to a wide array of situational and emotional conflicts and argued that certain patterns of religious behavior could be defined as ‘mental sickness' in their own right.
In the 21st century, psychologists have used empirically based methods to explore the relationships between mental health and patterns in religion and culture. The holistic approach, whereby a patient's beliefs and spirituality play a crucial role, is becoming increasingly popular. Research has shown that a person's religious and spiritual values can be key to the effective treatment of mental and emotional disorders. While previously religion and psychology were kept separate, religion is often incorporated in therapy, helping the patient to achieve emotional healing and inner wholeness.
Psychologists from the Sheffield Hallam University have identified certain positive effects of religious practices on mental health. The survey covered some 500 people in the 18 to 29 age group and examined their religious beliefs and depression history. The study suggested that suicide attempts are less common among people who follow a faith. It provides evidence that people who pray on a regular basis are less prone to depression and anxiety and have higher self-esteem. The survey emphasized the difference between personal prayer and church attendance. It also revealed that spiritual people have better mechanisms to deal with stress.
Psychology and psychiatry have found out that psychiatric symptoms can vary depending on the cultural and religious environment. Certain rigid religious postulates in an individual's upbringing can lead to lasting frustration and mental disorders. For example, the strong emphasis on guilt and shame in Catholic upbringing is seen to have a number of negative influences in adult life. Some conservative religious denominations can even inflict self-loathing on children who are seen to deviate from the standard. This is particularly conspicuous in the case of homosexuals brought up in a strictly religious community.
In 1972, in a bid to deal with the possible negative effects of religion on mental health, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the parent's authority in religious upbringing can be challenged in case of substantial threat or harm to the physical or mental health of the child. In this case, referred to as Wisconsin v Yoder, three Amish families sued the state of Wisconsin over its demand that children should attend school until the age of 16. The parents involved took their children out of school after the eighth grade, claiming their rights to freely exercise their religion were not respected. The Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin's law had violated the rights of the families. This ruling was significant because it prevented states from asserting an absolute right to impose high school education.
Psychologists argue that another proof that religion and mental illnesses might be related is the fact that psychotic delusions are often associated with deep religious beliefs. However, studies suggest that in many cases the occurrence of psychosis comes before the patient embraces fanatical religious ideas. According to researchers, patients with schizophrenia often have a religious pattern in what is referred to as their delusional systems.
Researchers cite particular studies as suggesting that particular religious groups have a high rate of schizophrenia. For example, cloistered nuns appear to be prone to mental disorders. Psychologists attribute such data to the specific lifestyle resulting from some religious practices. On the other hand, opponents of this theory believe that schizophrenia in particular is caused by heredity, biochemistry and neurophysiological factors. Researchers argue that the appearance of religious images in schizophrenic delusions does not give evidence of the causality between religious beliefs and the illness.