Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Should Parents Who Call God Instead of the Doctor Be Punished?

This is the title of a provocative new article in Mother Jones by journalist Deena Guzder. This week, Leilani Neuman goes on trial for reckless endangerment. Her husband is scheduled to go on trial in June. A year ago, daughter Kara, age 11, died of undiagnosed and untreated juvenile diabetes. According to the article:

"If her parents had called the hospital that day, Kara might have lived."

Instead, as their child lay motionless in bed, the couple knelt in prayer beside her. Dale and Leilani are followers of the Unleavened Bread Ministry, "an online church that shuns medical intervention."

Further down, we get to mental illness, this time in a context that includes adults. According to the article:

Mental illness is an area that remains especially taboo in orthodox religious communities. "A lot of fundamentalist Christians, including pastors, believe that people have mental illness symptoms because they do not pray hard enough or do not believe in God enough," says John McManamy, mental health journalist and author of Living Well With Depression and Bipolar Disorder. McManamy notes that "religion is often a very positive experience for people with mental illness," but extremists cling to a "medieval belief that mental affliction is the result of the work of the devil and lack of sufficient faith in God."

Recently, I devoted a blog piece to the positive aspects of faith and spirituality in our recovery, noting that:

"There have been a number of studies that convincingly demonstrate that people of faith recover more quickly from a variety of illness than their non-faith counterparts."

And that:

"For most of us, faith and spirituality is a no-brainer. We've grown up with it. We're comfortable with it. So, when we finally start thinking about our own recovery, we are not contending with learning a new skill that may not be a good fit for us. Faith and spirituality is something we can incorporate into our recovery right now, with positive benefits."

The negative side is that much of the stigma we face today stems from medieval Christianity, which saw mental illness as a form of divine retribution. This represented a total reversal of ancient and humane Greek belief. Not surprisingly, Freud described religious beliefs as a mass delusion and the Catholic faith as the enemy. As recently as the 1990s, the DSM-III-R used religious behavior in 23 percent of its examples of psychopathology.

But the future lies in working together. Medical schools now incorporate spirituality and healing into their curricula, and university centers such as Duke's Center for the Study of Spirituality, Theology, and Health are forging new understandings. NAMI, through NAMI FaithNet, is making an outreach to the faith community.

The potential for good things happening is enormous.

Further reading from mcmanweb:

God Power

In 2001, Dr Koenig, along with fellow Duke scientist, David Larson MD, MSPH, and Michael McCullough PhD of Southern Methodist University, published "Handbook for Religion and Health" (Oxford University Press). In preparing the book for publication, the authors reviewed more than 100 studies on the relationship of religion to depression. Two-thirds of those studies found religious persons have less depression than those who are non-religious, and if they become depressed, they recover more quickly.

A review of 12 studies by Dr Larson et al published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology in 1991 found a positive relationship between religious commitment and lower suicide rates. A study by Nisbet et al published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders in 2000 found that adults 50 years or older who never participated in religious activities were four times more likely than religious people in their age group to commit suicide, replicating the results of a 1972 study.

Skeptics cite the placebo effect as a probable cause of the benefits of spiritual belief, together with the fact that religious communities offer the kind of support networks that reduce stress and ease mental anguish. Additionally, those who attend religious services have better health habits, such as drinking and smoking less. Finally, religions encourage marriage, which is a reliable predictor of longer life.

But the true cause of the healing effect hardly matters. In an interview in the Winter 2002 issue of Health and Spirituality Connection, Dr Koenig explained that religion gives people hope and optimism and helps them better overcome a negative life experience. Some religious people may think God is punishing them or become overburdened with guilt, but religion can also relieve guilt and grant forgiveness.


Elizabeth said...

I didn't post a response to your poll on the effects of religion/spirituality because I was very divided. Yes, spirituality is important to me, but as for its use in my recovery, you'll get a very different answer when I'm toward the manic side--when I actually feel a strong connection to the divine--than when I'm depressed. God seems to stop answering the phone when I'm down. Right now, I'm pretty down, but am attempting to keep up with meditation and prayer.

And then there's the medieval mindset of my fundamentalist family. My mother has told me that my condition is the effect of "letting Satan in." My sister wants to perform an exorcism. My brother-in-law--who molested me when I was 14 and subsequently "got God"--tells me repeatedly that my problem is that I haven't accepted Christ as my Lord, etc.

I was delighted to read your take on us choosing our life, as I've often thought that myself. It's one way I cope: to believe that there is a greater reason for the horrors of this disorder.

John McManamy said...

I hear you, Elizabeth. God is definitely not taking my calls when I'm down.

I know Christian belief can play a huge role in a person's recovery, but just as there is both good and bad medicine, there is good and bad in religious belief. Thank you for a sobering example of the latter.

I hope you are dealing with this okay.