Psychologists, Christians, and community members interested in how religious beliefs affect mental health gathered this past Friday for the University’s annual Veritas Forum. This year’s forum, titled “Making Sense of Mental Health,” explored the combination of the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of mental illness.
“We picked the topic in conjunction with Veritas, our mother-body organization, and we pick topics that we think are relevant to current affairs,” said forum co-director Chando Mapoma ’16. “This year we picked disabilities and mental health because [those topics have] been in the news a lot. [Evangelical Christian pastor] Rick Warren’s son killed himself, and he was mentally unstable, and that’s been in the news. I also think it’s something that’s not talked about a lot. We wanted to shed more light on it from a Christian context.”
Mapoma organized the event along with forum director Jinsol Hyun ’15, financial directors Youngbo Sim ’15 and Joshua Lee ’16, publicity director Jamie Jung ’16, and outreach directors Tae Hee Kim ’15 and Shirley Deng ’14. The students worked with sponsors such as the Catholic Students Organization, Wesleyan Christian Fellowship, and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
The discussion featured Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Vice Chair at Duke University Dan Blazer and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at Yale School of Medicine Nii Addy, as well as University Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Jennifer D’Andrea, who served as moderator.
Blazer asserted that spirituality is highly tied to a psychologist’s approach to treating patients with mental health issues.
“Depression is at once biological, psychological, social, and spiritual, and if we try to disentangle that, we miss some very important points,” Blazer said. “Depression in my view is always a spiritual challenge because it has a way of undermining so much of who we are. [Medical approaches] all can be helpful, but we have to look at trying to heal the soul, as well as the psyche and the body.”
He also addressed how psychologists can incorporate this into their work.
“Therapists need to listen to not just what seems to be on the surface, they need to be listening underneath,” Blazer said. “If we listen underneath, I think we’ll hear about the spiritual, and that will enable us then to be able to work with the person more on a spiritual level.”
Questions and conversation covered a range of topics, from how to balance a spiritual and medical approach to how social media affects our ability to communicate with others. Addy explained how social media can both assist and deter the human connection necessary for this process.
“I’ve seen people who have been able to isolate themselves more easily because of social media,” Addy said. “But at the same time, I’ve also seen people who have been willing to share more in a social media setting and have been more willing to have other people walk them through certain situations…. It’s a mixed bag, and we’re still trying to figure out the balance point, but there are efforts to try to use social media in positive ways.”
After hearing the scientists stress the importance of spirituality in treatment, Andrew McCloskey ’15 expressed his hope that students at the University will make a more conscious effort to be in tune with the spiritual aspect of mental health.
“[We should be looking into how] the biological and spiritual play into each other, and as to how those treatments together are maximally effective,” McCloskey said. “It’s not necessarily something that the typical Wesleyan student looks for. I’m a religious person, I do rely on God pretty heavily, and I do attribute my mental state to my ability to rely on God for a lot of different things. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by a lot of what they had to say, but it was certainly nice to hear it supported scientifically. I’m a science-minded person, and it’s nice to hear the support of other scientists who also have that religious background.”
Claire Wright ’16 also said she hopes the on-campus community will pay more attention to the spiritual side of mental health. She noted in particular D’Andrea’s findings that students who are actively engaged with spirituality during healing processes are more likely to recover.
“I think it’s interesting what they said about the effect of spirituality on treatment and how that does help treatment if students are proactively seeking out a spiritual support system as well as a biological and medical support system,” Wright said. “I think that plays into the idea that as a community at Wesleyan we should be looking to expand how we think about mental health topics, expand what we think of as feasible and helpful resources on campus for mental health problems.”
Abel Sandoval ’15 believes that the Veritas Forum shows that there is increasing awareness about this aspect of mental health.
“In the forum, it was very clear that Dr. D’Andrea definitely sees [spirituality] as a very important thing to keep in mind as a psychological professional,” Sandoval said. “She stressed the importance that it should have from a professional perspective but also just a single individual’s perspective on mental health. I definitely see an increasing awareness both inside the psychologist’s office but also just among the general student population.”
Those involved in the conversation stressed that spirituality is not a separate approach to treatment for mental illness but factors into both the psychological and biological aspects. Mapoma sees this as an affirmation that science and Christianity are not at odds.
“The forum showed that you can look at everything from a Christian perspective,” Mapoma said. “[God] is not irrelevant in the new era. Even as the world gets more and more secular, it is still possible to see God in every aspect of our lives today.”