Thursday, July 24, 2014

Religion and Mental Health

It's been a year since Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson killed her two children and herself due to postpartum depression. Following the tragedy, I wondered if religion could have made a difference for Lisa, and for others facing mental health challenges.

The tragic story of the death of Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson—who killed her children and herself a year ago due as a result of postpartum depression—was covered by almost every angle by the media: Legal, criminal, mental health, gender, medical, political.

But one angle that didn’t get any attention from reporters was religion.

It’s not surprising in one sense; religion usually only makes the news when there’s a scandal or a new pope is elected. But it is surprising in another; numerous studies have linked being part of a faith community with positive mental health outcome, including dealing with suicide and postpartum depression.

Why does religion promote positive mental health? Without discounting the supernatural, a main reason is that being part of a faith community provides a network of caring people who look out for each other.

According to someone close to the family, the Gibsons did not belong to a faith community. But if they had, I wonder: How would local congregations have responded? I contacted some Winnipeg clergy to find out.

“In the context of regular involvement in church and small groups, people support one another in whatever life throws at them, whether that is an issue of mental health, physical health, child rearing, financial need or anything else,” says Marvin Dyck, pastor of Crossroads Mennonite Brethren Church .

“We become to one another a part of the village that raises the child, or otherwise carries someone along through the inevitable crises of life,” he says.

Allan Robison, President of the Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, says that caring for families is a high priority for Mormons.

“After the birth of a child we come to the home and bring meals for the family until the mother gets on her feet,” he says, adding that church members continue to make regular visits to see how parents are doing.

If professional help is needed, he says, the church is quick to connect people with other resources, he says. If necessary, they will pay for it. 

“I don't know if any of that could prevent what happened [to Lisa],” he says, “but we do love and care for each other, and that usually seems to keep our members feeling loved and cared for.”

Michael Wilson, pastor of Charleswood United Church, notes that being part of a faith community is no “guarantee that this tragedy might have ended any differently." But, he says, "I think being part of a faith community does matter. One hopes that a faith community is a safe place to tell others what you are experiencing and then shares it [that experience] with you.”

For women with post-partum depression, “we would hope that a faith community offers the prospect of being directed to the appropriate help by removing the stigma of naming our problems. Finally, we hope that companionship is a central element of being in a faith community and we try to connect people with others who have been through a similar struggle.”

Belonging to a faith community is no guarantee that people won’t face mental health challenges or crises. But it seems that being part of a congregation can make a difference when it comes to coping with them.

Photo from The Guardian. Credit Chris Rout. Read more about Lisa Gibson on the CBC Manitoba website.

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