Oftentimes when it comes to mental illness, it is difficult enough to come out and admit to anyone, yet alone yourself, that you have a problem. When the time is right and you feel comfortable enough to open up to your family or friends about your problem, one thing I hope you never have to experience is the dreaded “just pray on it”. It is a common belief that mental illness is something that can easily be dealt with if you pray with enough purpose to your cause. For many strongly religious homes and particularly for people of colour, this is a long standing belief. These beliefs stem from a number of origins that will not be easily eradicated.
Do not get me wrong, it is completely fine to have religious beliefs and turn to prayer in times of need. I myself was raised Catholic. Although at times my beliefs have been stronger than others, these were always for my own reasons and not someone else’s. It is fine to turn to your God or whomever you may believe in for support and guidance when you’re feeling out of sorts. It is another thing, though, to force your beliefs on someone as a means to stifle their call for help. If you do not care enough to gather the real facts to help your loved one, that is truly your issue and not theirs. Religion and prayer should be a complement to the treatment that your healthcare practitioner provides, and not an excuse to forbid a person from seeking treatment at all.
The thing is, every so often religion is used as a band aid tactic to deal with a much greater physiological issue. Often older generations of people of colour will give young people the idea that they are too sensitive and weak if they admit to mental trauma or distress. Oftentimes, they are denying the issue in order to disassociate from the root of the problem, and avoid putting disgrace upon the family. Although many people may feel that a loved one’s mental illness could reflect poorly on their upbringing, ignoring it and telling someone to “toughen up” will just add another layer of shame and isolation to the person’s struggle.
This is one layer of stigma that is so ingrained into many cultures that it will take the test of time to outlive. If you were raised in a Christian household you will know that the Holy Bible which holds both a New Testament and an Old Testament is meant to differentiate before the coming of Christ and the afterwards. Essentially the Old Testament was a rule book for what people should do in preparation for the coming of God, and the New Testament was what happened after He came. There are many implications, especially in the Old Testament, to the illegality of devil or idol worship and what would happen if anyone chose this route over worshiping God. There are also many verses which outline what one must do or say to ward off evil and if you did otherwise you were meant to be punished.
These evil spirits which people were praying against were thought to be the cause of mental illness at the time. Any abnormal behavior was instantly attributed to an evil spirit as opposed to a neurological imbalance. In 6th century B.C or before that I can understand why this would be a commonly accepted theory. However, in 2016 with endless research done on psychological and developmental disorders there is no excuse to still be thinking this way. As one of my favourite authors Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, do better,” and this is long overdue. It is safe to say at this point that these issues stem from real chemical imbalances in the brain and nervous system, and if left untreated will lead to worse circumstances so it should be acknowledged as such. If you were to break your arm for instance, it would be highly irrational if someone were to tell you to “pray on it” in order for it to heal, and it should be the same thought process in regards to a mental illness. I believe that spiritual leaders and institutions could be a great ally in dealing with mental illness in the community- that is, only if the community could be an ally as well.
About Deshawna Dookie
Deshawna Dookie is an undergraduate psych student and a mental health advocate. Originally from the Toronto area, she has had her own experiences with mental health as well as being a supportive friend and supporter of others with similar experiences. She also has a personal interest in topics pertaining to the intersection of race and mental health. Throughout her own trials with mental health she discovered a number of holistic methods to dealing with mental health issues and is working towards sharing these ideas on her own website and blog. Until then you can follow her on Twitter and here on HMC's Supportive Minds Blog.