Seeking Spiritual Wellsprings of Mental Health

By Mary Lynn Bahr

Since Brigham Young admonished Karl G. Maeser “not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God,” professors at BYU have worked to integrate the secular and the spiritual. This is true in psychology as in other disciplines. Today on campus Allen E. Bergin and P. Scott Richards are not alone in their efforts to investigate the connections between religion and mental health. Professors are working on similar ideas in the counseling and career center and in the disciplines of psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, philosophy, political science, and ancient scripture. A few recent findings are summarized here. In addition, new course offerings in several BYU departments are a by-product of this work.

Devoutly religious people do not show higher rates of depression, suicide, or mental illness. In fact, a deeply religious population may have fewer of these serious problems. These and other findings are summarized by Daniel K Judd, BYU assistant professor of ancient scripture, in his book Religion, Mental Health, and the Latter-day Saints. Judd has identified 58 credible research studies that, he writes, “looked at specific dimensions of Latter-day Saint religiosity (affiliation, belief, and behavior) in relation to different dimensions of mental health (i.e. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.)” ([Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1999], p. xiii). In analyzing the studies, Judd found that 71 percent of the outcomes indicated a positive relationship between religiosity and mental health; 4 percent of the outcomes were negative, and 24 percent were neutral.

He writes, “The research evidence clearly indicates that Latter-day Saints who live their religion report better mental health than those who are less committed to the faith” (p. xiii). Judd’s book highlights 12 representative studies, nine of them authored or coauthored by BYU professors.
Prayer can help religious couples resolve marital conflicts. This notion may seem obvious to believers, but Mark H. Butler, a BYU assistant professor of marriage and family therapy, has data to support it. His findings, published in the March 1999 issue of Family Process, suggest that prayer facilitates reconciliation and problem solving for religious couples.

Religious and spiritual interventions may be important in treating patients with eating disorders. P. Scott Richards, BYU associate professor of counseling psychology, and his colleagues in private practice have found that their eating disorder patients often struggle with spiritual issues. In a 1997 paper they describe seven spiritual issues that are commonly problematic for eating disorder patients and discuss seven spiritual interventions they have used to successfully treat eating disorders. They write, “In our clinical experience, we have found that spiritual issues and interventions are often central to the disorder and the recovery” (“Spiritual Issues and Interventions in the Treatment of Patients with Eating Disorders,” Eating Disorders 5, no. 4 [Winter 1997], p. 263).