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Studies link being part of a faith community with improving mental health

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Mourners lit candles during a vigil in memory of Lisa Gibson and her two children.


Mourners lit candles during a vigil in memory of Lisa Gibson and her two children. Photo Store

The tragic story of the death of Lisa Gibson and her children was covered at almost every angle by the media -- legal, criminal, mental health, gender, medical, political. But one angle that didn't get any attention by 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 local 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 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 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. 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."

The local Muslim community also looks for ways to support families, especially new immigrants who are far from family, says Shahina Siddiqui of the Islamic Social Services Association.

"When supports are often not available, it is important for local Muslims to step in and offer assistance," she says.

It's especially important for mothers struggling with depression "to know that God loves them and has not abandoned them when they feel this way," she adds. "Our goal is to offer support from the faith community."

Michael Wilson, pastor of Charleswood United Church, notes 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 postpartum 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."

Fredrich Ulrich of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple shares an "an old Buddhist saying" that "the best part of ourselves is each other." This means, he says, "that as we experience life's problems, there is already a supportive network present at some level. The absence of such a supportive network renders us morally and spiritually impoverished."

Dealing with mental illness, while a complex issue, also "requires a community," he says. "There is no healing without community... our own healing begins when we, even in some small way, start to work for the healing of others."

Belonging to a faith community is no guarantee people won't face serious challenges or crises, or that terrible things won't happen. But being part of a congregation seems to make a difference. If an inquest or public inquiry is created to examine this tragedy, the perspectives and experiences of local faith communities would be worth exploring.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 D15

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