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Religion, spirituality, and mental health

Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson

An assortment of religious symbols on paper.

What Is Religion?

In general, religion is centered around certain beliefs, values, or practices. Religion may be held as a personal experience, oriented around family, shared with a larger community, formalized by an institution, or some combination.

Many religions share attributes in common, often focusing on one or more of the following:

  • A god or multiple gods
  • Supernatural events or beings
  • The meaning of life
  • The origins of the universe
  • What happens after death
  • A shared history
  • Cultural traditions
  • Moral principles
  • Community gatherings
  • Sacred texts
  • Holy pilgrimages
  • How to treat others

Definitions of religion tend to be flexible. A person may identify as part of a religious group without attending gatherings or adopting certain practices. Similarly, a person may participate actively in a religious institution but disagree on certain interpretations or principles. 

Organized religion may draw lines around who “counts” as part of their faith tradition. This may be done to exclude extremists who abuse certain doctrines to justify harmful actions or behaviors. On the other hand, it may also be used to marginalize people or groups who do not agree with or meet certain doctrinal standards of belief or practice.

Religion in the U.S.

Popular religions1 in the United States include:

  • Christianity
  • Judaism
  • Islam
  • Buddhism
  • Hinduism

It is important to note that each of these religions has its own subgroups, typically known as denominations, schools, or traditions. These groups may or may not claim affiliation with one another, but they can still be traced back to one of the five most common religions listed above. 

Not all religions in the U.S. derive from the five most common, such as indigineous religions. It is also notable that about a quarter of Americans2 identify as atheist, agnostic, or as otherwise having no religious affiliation.

Is Religion a Mental Illness?

Religion is not a mental illness. Many mentally healthy people actively believe and participate in religion. In fact, some forms of religion have been tied with positive mental health outcomes3. However, some religious teachings may contribute to or exacerbate mental health problems, depending on the nature of the teachings. 

What Is Spirituality?

In general, spirituality is about how a person reflects on and participates in the interconnectedness of the world. Spirituality tends to be concerned more with the human experience than specific beliefs or practices. 

Can You Be Spiritual Without Being Religious?

Spirituality and religion are not the same thing. A person may be atheist, agnostic, or otherwise unaffiliated and still consider themselves spiritual. Spirituality may be expressed through religion and faith communities, but it may also be equally expressed in more secular ways, such as:

  • Journaling
  • Deep breathing
  • Spending time in nature
  • Connecting with others
  • Engaging with art and beauty
  • Taking time to rest
  • Volunteering
  • Celebrating what makes you happy

Spiritual Treatments

Some people embrace a more spiritual approach to health. Common spiritual treatments include forms of spiritual healing or alternative medicine that claim to manipulate energies or remove “blocks” that may be preventing people from making healthier choices.

Keep in mind that although spiritual treatments may be beneficial to some, they are not the same as traditional therapy. Spiritual treatments have not been proven to be effective for either physical or mental health. As such, they should only be undertaken under the advice of a doctor or mental health professional.

Religion and Mental Health

Psychological Benefits of Religion

There are multiple mental health benefits to participating in religion, including:

  • Community and belonging: Many religions offer regular meetings with fellow believers. These often serve as opportunities for community for people who may be struggling with loneliness or isolation.
  • Reflective practices: It’s common for religions to recommend reflective practices like prayer and meditation. Many denominations have prayer circles or prayer chains, bringing a community element into the process. They may also have regular rituals for silence, solitude, and rest, which may be considered forms of self-care. 
  • Love and support in hard times: Religion may offer comfort and support in times of struggle, such as the loss of a loved one.
  • Moral values: Values like empathy, compassion, and forgiveness may help people navigate shame, stigma, and anger in healthier ways.

Negative Mental Health Effects of Religion

Religion and Mental Health Stigma

Unfortunately, some religious communities view mental health issues as personal or moral failings. Some may refer to mental illness as evil or sinful. Many people of faith have been instructed to simply “pray harder” to be cured of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Others have been instructed to only seek help from religious leaders, not mental health professionals. 

Religious Psychosis

Sometimes, extreme expressions of religions may be categorized as a form of psychosis. This usually occurs when a person believes they are receiving direct communication from their god in the form of voices or visions.

While it’s okay to believe in a god who communicates, it’s important to know the difference between religious intuition and hallucinations. Today, most major religions believe that their gods communicate in subtler and more mysterious ways than audible voices or visible apparitions. Receiving messages from gods, deities, or supernatural beings is more likely a sign of psychosis than religious dedication.

Religious Trauma

Trauma is an emotional response to a horrifying, stressful, or dangerous event, relationship, or circumstance that threatens or harms a person’s health and safety. When trauma occurs in the context of religion, it is known as religious trauma.

Often, religious trauma occurs when certain identities are marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against, or actively shunned or banned from the religious community. People may be vulnerable to religious trauma due to their religion’s harmful beliefs or actions regarding their:

  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Disability or chronic illness
  • Occupation
  • Income level or socioeconomic class
  • Relationship or marital status
  • Ability to have children
  • Immigrant experience and/or status
  • Mental health history
  • Experience of other traumas, such as abuse or assault

Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse occurs when religion is used to manipulate, control, coerce, or abuse. A spiritual abuser may use tenets of your faith to pressure or force you into unwanted or harmful actions or behaviors. They may gaslight you regarding your own experiences.

Religious leaders may spiritually abuse others from their position of authority. However, spiritual abuse may also occur at a much more personal level. Romantic partners, parents, employers, and others might use spiritual abuse as a method of control. This may occur even if they do not share the same beliefs as you.

Religion and Therapy

For those who consider religion to be an important part of life, the good news is that religion and therapy are completely compatible. Many religious people benefit from therapy, and many religious people become therapists. A person’s religion can often be a helpful framework for understanding and addressing mental health problems.

Faith-Based Therapy

Faith-based therapy puts mental health techniques and research into a religious framework to make it more accessible for religious clients. 

Some people may prefer faith-based therapy as a protective measure. It might be difficult to feel comfortable sharing about your mental health with a complete stranger. Knowing your therapist has similar beliefs and values to your own may help establish and develop a trusting relationship more quickly.

Additionally, faith-based therapy is helpful for people who may have suffered religious trauma. Organized religion can be complicated, so it’s helpful to speak with someone who already understands the rituals and practices you might be referring to in a session. However, it’s important to choose a faith-based therapist who is not directly affiliated with the specific religious institution related to your trauma. You need to feel safe and certain that whatever you express in therapy will not make its way back to your abusers.

Faith-based therapy exists for many religions, although it is most common in the United States among Christian denominations. Browse our directory to find Christian counseling or a faith-based therapist in your religious tradition near you.

Is Religious Counseling the Same Thing as Therapy?

Religious counseling offered by religious institutions, such as biblical counseling, is typically not the same as therapy. Many religious leaders have little to no psychological training. They can only offer spiritual leadership and direction, not professional mental health support.

The exception is pastoral counseling, in which a pastor has received professional training for both theological counseling and mental health counseling. Be sure to check into a religious leader’s credentials before you choose to rely on them for mental healthcare.

Find a Therapist

If you’re a religious person looking for mental healthcare for the first time, or if you’ve experienced religious trauma, therapy may help. Browse our directory of therapists to find a religion-informed therapist near you. 

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.