Psychology and Spirituality Can Go Hand-in-Hand When Addressing Mental Health

February 14, 2019

Ryan McMillian is a Staff Therapist and alum of our Post Graduate Certificate Program for members of the clergy. Here, Ryan responds to the article “Her religion made her mental illness worse. Then it saved her.”


The stigma surrounding mental health concerns has a destructive presence that peeks its head in every aspect of our society. Prominent athletes and coaches have used their platform to discuss their bouts with depression and anxiety. Our media updates include well known celebrities that endured suicide. To write this article, I conducted a google search that showed an influx of pastors with depression and completed suicides. As a staff therapist with the Council for Relationships, a hospice chaplain, seminary graduate and former clergy person, understanding the relationship between religious groups and psychology has become a life’s work. Therefore, I have complied a list of  three understandings to debunk the myths and eliminate the stigma and why religious institutions can be on the front line to do so.

We are NOT adversaries but partners.

By adding an emphasis on mental health in your place of worship, it gives congregants and followers permission to care for their cognitive-emotional well being. Renowned Positive Psychologist and researcher Martin Seligman shared a study in his book Learned Optimism that proved that religion is a major resource in promoting hope and therefore, practices like prayer, meditation, and sacred stories greatly impact mental health. With a mental health concern, more support is needed. Therapy is not a competitor or adversary to spiritual support. Therapy compliments efforts toward healing. In the same way, religious leaders visit those recovering from physical ailments, and supporting congregants experiencing mental angst is equally important. Through my work with on-campus at Princeton Theological Seminary, I know more pastors and future religious leaders are entering therapy. I also know more work needs to be done as there are still people who feel shamed when seeking treatment. For this reason, the Council for Relationships seeks to provide mental health education in religious institutions to ensure that there is a partnership when working toward wholeness.

The therapist is NOT a judge but a support.

The purpose of clinical treatment is not to promote the views of the therapist or to judge religion for any reason. While therapy will focus on anything or anyone that is shaming or a source of pain for the client, the intent of therapy is not to cast judgment on religion itself. I became a therapist along with a cohort of colleagues that were a part of the Clergy Track at the Council for Relationships Post Graduate Certificate Program to ensure that psychology and spirituality both had a voice in how we treat clients. While a therapist will never encourage a client to return to any type of abusive relationship, the therapist should understand how a major resource like faith can actually be a huge component in the therapeutic process. In my role as either a therapist or a clergy person, I see myself a member of the client’s support team. A physician has a role, while a nutritionist focuses on a separate aspect of wellness. A minister has a significant role, and psychiatrists and therapists join to complete the support or wellness team.

Religious leaders play an important role.

Clergy have a significant role in the life of the parishioner. They visit congregants at the end of life or suffering with an illness, provide insight around marital disputes and counsel the engaged, as well as facilitate milestone moments like a child’s first communion or Bat Mitzvah. For the religious person, almost every major moment is shared with clergy. Our religious traditions also inform our decisions. As an advocate for personal healing and a therapist that works with clients from various religious traditions, I learned from my work that religious leaders can also play a critical role in encouraging parishioners to seek help around their mental health. Shame around seeking help only worsens the condition. One of my late clients would say “be careful when driving, the life you save could be mine.” With that said, be intentional and supportive about what you say about mental health, the life you save could be your congregant.