How Faith & Culture Affect Mental Health

Both faith and culture have unique effects on mental health. It’s worth exploring the reasons that this is the case, as well as what those effects are.

Dr. Henry Cloud, psychologist and author of Changes That Heal, a best-selling work that explores various issues related to mental health (as well as mental health and the church), shares his thoughts on how faith and culture can affect mental health, both separately and in intertwining ways. We’ll share his observations throughout this article.

A Culture of Self-Sufficiency

Dr. Cloud puts it this way:
“We really do need relationship, and we cannot live very well without it. We have already seen what happens when it’s absent. Remember what God said in the Garden of Eden: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

A Culture of Isolation

People who can do it all themselves don’t see the need to surround themselves with others. Or, even if they do, it gets viewed as wrong or weak to try to pursue.

Certainly other factors, like a global pandemic and a dramatic rise in online communication, contribute as well. But whatever the causes, this widespread isolation is damaging — especially to mental health. After seeing the effects of pandemic-induced isolation, almost no one would dispute this reality. But culture — even faith culture — was already heading full-steam toward greater levels of disconnectedness before the pandemic ever hit.

Dr. Cloud:
“People who are disconnected from God and others feel very empty. Emptiness is one of the most painful emotions a human can feel. Empty people can’t feel their own need for love, and they can’t feel others’ love for them… It is only when they feel the need for love and respond to others’ love that the love inside them begins to grow.”

Not only can isolation and disconnectedness strain mental health, for people of faith, these states of being often lead to temptation and sin. Again, Dr. Cloud had this to say:
“Emotionally isolated people can’t get relationship, so they go for something else. Satan convinces them that they really want the food, the sex, or the drugs, and they order their whole life around it. But they really need their emptiness to be filled up with loving feelings and connections with other humans and with God.”

What Sola Scriptura Does Not Mean

We need community all the time — and especially when we’re hurting or undergoing mental health struggles.

Here’s how Dr. Cloud illustrates this point:
“Compare God’s way to the way of some people. These people tell those who hurt that they don’t need others; they should just pray and study Scripture! This is like cutting off the hand of God, who wants to comfort the empty by sending his body to minister! James reminds us that people have more than just spiritual needs: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16). Many times people have emotional, not just physical needs. They need the presence of another, as Paul did, and this is the way that God wants to love them.”

Faith Communities Can Offer Solutions

As difficult an issue as mental health can be for faith communities to navigate, people in the church and in the surrounding communities of a church need this kind of support — now more than ever. People experiencing mental health concerns can find support through faith in the deep love of Christ, as it says in Ephesians 3:17-19:

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
And churches need to be better prepared to meet these mental health challenges with truth and grace.

Dr. Cloud’s newest resource, Churches That Heal, is a digital toolkit for churches that offers church leadership training for pastors and leaders, plus mental health church resources that can equip today’s churches to push back against the negative effects of culture — plus the lack of quality church mental health programs.

Learn more about Churches That Heal, one of the most robust and helpful church leadership training programs dealing with the area of mental health.

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