Forum Observations: Religion and Mental Health

Mental Health Week 2015 In observance of Mental Health Week, Voices for Harmony in collaboration with Shepparton Interfaith Network conducted a forum, Religion and Mental Health at GOTAFE on Friday, 9th October. In this account, local identity, historian and well known book reviewer, Pat Crudden - who coordinates Socrates Cafe at the University of the Third Age - has kindly shared his thoughts about the speakers who presented at this forum.

Voices for Harmony: Celebrating Mental Health Week

The individual speakers spoke in a way that was inspiring, challenging and very honest. It was not easy to take in all that was said but I am happy to share the content I was able to take in, not least because the afternoon as a whole gave so much to think about.

Building Social Cohesion in Shepparton, Frank Purcell

The essential thing about living in Shepparton, whether our priorities are religious or secular, is to seek and find common ground and basic values sufficient to keep us discussing and building on what we share rather than refusing to listen to each other and respect life choices different from our own. One important aspect of this is that secularists have to relate positively to people with religious convictions rather than suggesting that religion has no place in a secular democracy. It is important to recognize not just that key values of secular democracy are derived from religion but that a diversity of lifestyles and outlooks on life actually enrich secular society.

A Buddhist Perspective, Hojun Futin

This presenter was entertaining, informative and amusing in that he simply did not want to stop sharing with us the Buddhist perspective of which he was so proud. Beginning with loss, depression and debilitating change was a surprise but in mental health week it is not a bad idea to suggest how to deal with suffering ("life is suffering") and in particular to search for paths leading to the end of suffering. On the other hand his distinction between mind and brain enabled him to speak about some positives in our common humanity: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration (especially meditation as a means of slowing the mind down) and mindfulness (which he seemed to identify with insight). In a way this was a highlight of the afternoon because it evokes suggestions about an alternative to a thou-shalt-not approach to living your faith. His emphasis on impermanence (everything in flux) was appropriate. (Perhaps I was still thinking about that when he spoke about no-self as I have no recollection of what he said but would like to know.) His descriptor of a thought pattern in which form consists of sensation, perception, discrimination all of which collectively form our consciousness (a way of talking to ourselves) appealed to me. His final point, made under duress, returned to such realities of life as ignorance, anguish, desire, illness, old age and death. He stressed that all of these are indeed realities of life and so need to be faced with as much understanding and calm as we may be capable of.

The Perspective of a Christian who is a Psychologist by Estela Hutchings

Every word of this amazing talk was so important that I am negotiating for a copy. I really liked the account of the mental health issues being faced by the woman she cared for as a young nurse as it coincided with issues that I had encountered in pastoral work. The intense pain of severe mental illness is not to be taken lightly. It is not appropriate to add blame, or sin, or a punishment from God to pain of this kind. Like everything else in life the virtues of faith and hope can be helpful but they are not a substitute for psychological or psychiatric treatment. Estela referred to this as tension between scientific growth in understanding and traditional views about mental illness. I liked her final thought that faith and hope are interlinked and that taken together faith and hope really do help people to be resilient.

Guests at the Religion and Mental Health Forum

Guests at the Religion and Mental Health Forum:
Ven Hojun Futen, Estela Hutchings, Rev. Chris Parnell, Dr Imran Syed, Angie Devoti

Aboriginal Mental Health Services by Lance James

I really liked this unpretentious but very frank presentation. It was appropriate for him to remind us of how aboriginal people in this area had fled from the missions. Then even more appropriate to remind us that aboriginal people have traditional spiritual beliefs, including belief in life after death (Dreamtime). His role in the aboriginal community is grief and trauma counselling. He then provided the information (new to me) that mental health services had been set up in Redfern and Fitzroy some twenty years ago providing a model for community health services elsewhere. The need for this arose initially because hospitals habitually refused to provide mental health services for aboriginal people. With reference to the idea of community services he made the point that families often have to bear the brunt of mental health issues. He then spoke frankly about the extent of mental illness that is drug and alcohol related. One point he made in reference to this is that people who try to break free of self-induced mental illness are released from hospital after two weeks when a reasonable course of treatment might take something more like nine months. With reference to depression so prevalent in the lives of aboriginal people he suggested that early diagnosis and treatment of depression can prevent it from becoming chronic and even lifelong.

An Interfaith Perspective by Chris Parnell

This was a very important talk partly because he dealt with common ground between people of faith in day by day language without a hint of religiosity. He did this simply by dealing first with healthy religion and then unhealthy religion. Healthy religion allows you to make your own decisions, ***values common sense***, encourages participation in society, teaches you discrimination, expects you to be a person of integrity, committed to right living and right thinking. Religion promises us happiness but ultimately the choice of how to live is our own. Unhealthy religion is based on making decisions for you, telling you who your friends should be, encouraging you to live in isolation from the broad community, condemning those who choose to live secular lives and generally requires you to surrender your freedom. This kind of religion can and often does lead to mental illness so it is important in the long run to value work, exercise, spiritual life and relaxation. This perspective is particularly important when dealing with distress of any kind. Finally the key to living well is to be guided by common sense and to sustain high expectations of life as you experience it in the real world.

A Muslim Perspective by lmran Syed

By this time I was finding it difficult to take in the detail of the talk. Nonetheless I believe I learned something very fundamental from it. He said that continuing to hope in God's soothing love is fundamental to the faith of Islam. This took me back to my recollection that Mohammed's visionary experience shaped a mission of peace, compassion and mercy to designed to resolve the tribal conflicts in Arabia at that time. When that did not work as expected he and his followers resorted to violence and coercion but I believe lmran Syed was telling us that peace, compassion and mercy are still the essence of Islamic religious practice. That of course is something we have experienced in the Goulburn Valley and it raises hope that one day peaceful co-existence will again be possible in those countries ravaged by violence. He backed this up by saying, "Let people live by their own faith." Then he advised us all to focus on the present rather than dwelling on the past and spoke of facing issues with an evidence based approach that I thought was close to the common sense approach suggested by the previous speaker.

The Sikh Community by Kamal Deep Singh

Sadly I found it hard to tune in to this talk but the few sentences I picked up were useful. For instance I was surprised to learn that Sikhism is the fifth largest world religion. Then I was equally surprised to hear that all the beliefs of the Sikh faith are drawn from a Holy Book. Collectively these beliefs aim the create hope in mind, body and health. He wisely pointed out that there is always a difference between what we are and what we hope to be. He made the enigmatic comment that we may be "dead to the material world" but can still suffer distress. In dealing with issues such as this we are often mentally blind. Finally he warned against using religion for personal gain. I wish I had been able to pick up more from this talk as it seems to me that the Sikhs are comfortable about living in a secular democracy such as Australia and at the same time maintaining their Sikh identity.

Religion and Mental Health in Australia: Keywords

Religion and Mental Health in Australia: Keywords


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