Archbishop Fisher of Sydney provides Insights on Religion and Mental Health "Being a Christian doesn’t immunize you to life’s challenges." Full Text

Sydney Catholic Business Network Luncheon
Hyatt Regency - Archbishop Anthony Fisher's Address - Full Text
I echo Lisa’s welcome to a new year of the Sydney Catholic Business Network and thank you all for your participation.
1. Mental health is a big issue
One in five Australians suffers some form of psychological illness in any particular year, and nearly half do so at some stage in their life.[1] It affects all age groups, sexes, ethnicities, beliefs, professions. The figures are staggering, and mean a lot of people are hurting out there, many of them silently, without professional help, unbeknown to family, friends and work colleagues. Even if you’ve never suffered debilitating anxiety or depression yourself, I bet you know and love someone who has.
Late last year the Productivity Commission issued its draft report on Mental Health in Australia and its effects on businesses like those represented at this network.[2] It found that 75% of those who develop mental illness experience symptoms before they turn 25, and that stress, depression and worse are costing business as much as $17b a year in absenteeism (and sick-leave related costs) and ‘presenteeism’ (where an employee is at work but less productive).[3] If the problem is now recognized by many workplace leaders, it’s still not always clear what to do about it.
2. Why the rise of mental illness and what to do about it?
Like the rise of allergies, ADHD and Asperger’s, some of this huge rise in mental illness numbers is a consequence of greater awareness, declining stigma, better identification, and increased reporting. But as with allergies something about modernity seems to be contributing to a real rise in psychological issues.
Amongst the factors identified in the literature are:
  • Financial, work, study, social or personal pressures[4]
  • Family and relationship breakdown and social isolation[5]
  • School, workplace, domestic or cyber bullying[6]
  • Negative media and desensitised culture[7]
  • Substance use and abuse[8]
  • Access to professional help.[9]
But I wonder if there’s also a religious element to some of today’s mental health challenges and solutions… To what extent might people be less anxious or depressed if they prayed and meditated more? Or if their religious understanding and practice were deepened? To what extent might people be more resilient to internal and external pressures if they had such experiences and support?
3. Mental health and the loss of faith
Earlier I noted that, as with asthma and allergies, something(s) about modernity seems to be contributing to psychological issues. Today I’d like to identify a few possible spiritual-moral factors. Back in the 1960s the great sociologist Peter Berger coined the term ‘plausibility structures’ – structures of family, friends, institutions and cultural practices that contribute to the plausibility and durability of particular beliefs. In the past, he observed, religion had very strong plausibility structures: it was supported by extended family, ethnic group, neighbourhood, school, civil law and social customs. These prioritized churchgoing, for instance, and this in turn provided a source of identity and a social glue. But those previous plausibility structures have largely dissolved, contributing not only to a steady decline in religious faith and practice but very possibly to a parallel rise of mental illness.
Of course, the relationship is a complex one. At some times and places religion has problem contributed to obsessions and manias, or misunderstood psychological disorders as diabolical possession or moral failure, and applied remedies that were far from helpful.[10] At other times and places Christians and other believers have recognised mental illness for what it is, have loved and prayed for the sick, and have cared for them in the home, the parish and the first mental health institutions established by religious orders.
A large body of contemporary research suggests that, on the whole, religious beliefs and practices are associated with ‘greater well-being, less depression and anxiety, greater social support, and less substance abuse’.[11] Though the evidence is controverted, many credible studies have found that prayer, meditation, ritual, religious-moral teaching and practice contribute to the prevention or healing of mental illness.
Religion contributes to individual and social wellbeing by offering meaning, purpose and hope, by proposing practices that express and underpin these beliefs, by providing a range of educational, health and welfare services to members and outsiders, and by giving people other human and (they believe) divine support. These religions also cultivate a kind of character and integrity that may contribute to psychological resilience, and relationships that can be preventative of mental illness (by preempting social isolation, for instance) or supportive when people are suffering (e.g. when grieving a loved one). Above all, perhaps, the great faiths offer keys to human self-understanding that may help people maintain balance, perspective, self-criticism and virtue. It is far from clear that secular modernity has found equally effective structures of ideals and support.
4. The Bible and mental health
In the Old Testament God the Father and Creator saw the world and judged it very good (Gen 1:31). That ‘God don’t make junk’. Though human beings – and the rest of creation – are damaged by the Fall,[12] and that brokenness plays out in various ways, including physical and psychological illness, still human beings are all loved by God and destined to greatness.
And so in the Scriptures we see God’s people cry out to Him in their loneliness and affliction: “Why are you cast down, my soul, why all the turmoil within me? Hope in God, I shall praise Him still.”[13]This God cares for them in their brokenness: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,” says the Psalmist, “and saves the crushed in spirit”.[14] So God the Father and Creator draws His people out of the deepest psychological pits.[15]
In the Gospels God the Son and Redeemer took our nature and experienced our challenges. He was tempted,[16]felt gut-wrenching compassion,[17]wept with grief.[18] He was disappointed,[19] deeply troubled,[20] frightened[21] and even angry.[22]At one stage relatives thought He was “beside himself”[23] and the Jews declared Him mad or possessed.[24] He felt despondency as He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”[25] Jesus is God, then, sympathizing with the human condition from the inside.
What’s more, Jesus acknowledges that our sicknesses – like that of the man born blind – are not our fault, not punishment for our sins or the sins of those around us.[26] Though Christians recognize that trials can produce fruits like maturity, compassion and endurance,[27] their God is a God of love, who never treats human beings as playthings or actively wills their torment.[28]
Jesus sympathizes, explains and then responds. He calms storms within as well as outside. He returns dignity to women racked by shame,[29] a place in society to outcast lepers,[30] the dying to anxious intercessors,[31] loved ones to the grieving.[32] He brings peace to a demoniac who was self-harming by cutting himself with stones, so people “saw the man dressed and in his right mind”.[33] Luke’s Jesus came “to set free the oppressed” and to heal “every kind of sickness”.[34] He sought to include an ever-widening group amongst those we count neighbour, friend and family,[35] to demonstrate the hospitality of God to all,[36] and to mandate His disciples to do likewise.[37]
The Son of God came, He said, so that we “might have life, life to the full” and He was willing to give His life to that end.[38] That mission continued in the Acts of the Apostles when the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit praying in them and for them when they could only moan in despair.[39] He brings comfort, healing and guidance.[40] The great commission to preach and heal as Jesus did might seem impossible, but under the Spirit’s influence those first Christians did just that.[41]
They experienced that Spirit bringing love in place of isolation, joy instead of depression, peace in lieu of panic, patience rather than compulsion, kindness to self instead of self-harm, gentleness to others instead of violence, generosity in lieu of narcissism, fidelity for fickleness, and self-control in place of various behavioural disorders.[42] The God of Inspiration is prevention and therapy for many maladies of the heart.
5. The Church and mental health
The Church has had a long-standing interest in the interior life. It’s ministry has often been called ‘the cure of souls’. This reflects the ancient image of Christ the Physician of souls and bodies.[43]
Confessors, penitents and others have long recognised that there are links between the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the person;[44] that identity, direction and community are important for both; that knowing one is infinitely loved by God and receiving moral and spiritual formation can ground a certain resilience to psychological stress; that prayer and meditation, confession and anointing can be significant contributors to well-being; that the Church can provide healthcare and psychological services as well; that the Christian community can instantiate and model communion with the mentally ill; and that it can and should champions the rights of the psychologically frail in the wider community even as it offers them friendship and a spiritual home.
Being a Christian doesn’t immunize you to life’s challenges. The three St Teresas – of Avila, Lisieux and Calcutta – probably all suffered from depression; they certainly knew about ‘the dark night of the soul’. As St Augustine put it: Christians “both fear and desire, grieve and rejoice.” They are not immune to such psychological tensions, he insisted, but “because their love is rightly placed, all these emotions of theirs are made right”.[45]
If 1 in 5 people suffers from mental health issues of one kind or another, Sydney Catholic Business Network members face a daunting challenge. Yet when someone once asked Mother Teresa how she could possibly help the millions of poor and needy in Calcutta, she replied ‘One at a time’. Let’s promise to do what we can.

[1]     Lauren Cook, “Mental Health in Australia: A Quick Guide”, Research Paper Series 2018-19, 14 February 2019 .
[2]     Productivity Commission, Mental Health Draft Report: Overview and Recommendations (October 2019). The final report is expected later this year.
[3]     Stephen Lunn, “Mental illness costs $180bn, study reveals,” The Australian 31 October 2019. Cf. Leon Gettler, “The surprising cost of mental health in the workplace,” Blue Notes 30 May 2016; TNS Social Research, State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia (2014); VicHealth, “Excessive pressure at work is costing Australia’s economy $730 million a year due to job-stress related depression, a University of Melbourne and VicHealth report has revealed,” 16 December 2014$730m-a-year
[4]     Australian Psychological Society, Stress and Wellbeing: How Australians Are Coping with Life,19%20per%20cent%20in%202015; Centre for Social Impact, Why is Financial Stress on the Rise? Financial Resilience in Australia 2016 (Sep 2017)
[5]     Relationships Australia, Issues and Concerns for Australian Relationships Today (2011); Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “Social Isolation and Loneliness” (11 Sep 2019),
[7]     Centre for Media Transition, The Impact of Digital Platforms on News and Journalistic Content (University of Technology Sydney, 2018)
[8]     Christopher Dowrick & Allen Frances, ‘Medicalising and medicating unhappiness’, British Medical Journal, 347(7937) (2013), 20-23; Gordon Parker, “Is Depression over-diagnosed? Yes”, British Medical Journal 335(7615) (2007), 328; Allan Horwitz & Jerome Wakefield, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (OUP: 2007); Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Illicit Drug Use
[9]     Natasha Robinson, “’Missing middle’ slip through mental healthcare gaps,” The Australian 30 October 2019; Stephen Lunn, “Early checks needed to ease mental risks,” The Australian 31 October 2019 – both referring to Productivity Commissioon,
[10]    Cf. H. Koenig & D. Larson, “Religion and mental health: Evidence for an association,”  International Review of Psychiatry 13(2) (2009), 67-78.
[11]    Koenig & Larson, ‘Religion and mental health’.  Cf. also N. AbdAleati, N. Zaharim & Y. Mydin, “Religiousness and mental health: Systematic review study,” Journal of Religion & Health 55(6) (2016), 1929-37; S. Dein et al, “Religion, spirituality and mental health,” Psychiatrist 34(2) (2010), 63-4 and “Religion, spirituality, and mental health: Current controversies and future directions,” Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease 200(10) (2012), 852-55; R. Dew et al, “Religion/spirituality and adolescent psychiatric symptoms: A review,” Child Psychiatry & Human Development 39(4) (2008), 381-98; C. Estrada et al, “Religious education can contribute to adolescent mental health in school settinmgs,” International Journal of Mental Health Systems 13(28) (2019); A. Fabricatore et al, “Stress, religion, and mental health: Religious coping in mediating and moderating roles,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 14(2) (2004), 91-108; R. Fallot, “Spirituality and religion in psychiatric rehabilitation and recovery from mental illness,” International Review of Psychiatry 13(2) (2001), 110-16 and “Spirituality and religion in recovery: Some current issues,” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal xxx; N. Fisher, “Science says: Religion is good for your health,” Forbes 29 March 2019; J. Fruehwirth, “The science is in: Faith can be effective against adolescent depression,” America 30 September 2019; L. George, C. Ellison & D. Larson, “Explaining the Relationships between religious involvement and health,” Psychological Inquiry 13(3) (2002), 190-200; M. Harrison et al, “The epidemiology of religious coping; a review of recent literature,” International Review of Psychiatry 13(2) (2001), 86-93; J. Hovey, “Religion-based emotional social support mediates the relationship between intrinsic religiosity and mental health,” Archives of Suicide Research 18(4) (2014), 376-91; K. Jansen et al, “Anxiety, depression and students’ religiosity,” Mental Health 12(3) (2010), 267-71; M. King et al, “Religion, spirituality and mental health: Results from a national study of English households,” British Journal of Psychiatry 202(1) (2013), 68-73; H.G. Koenig, “Research on religion, spirituality, and mental health: A review,” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 54(5)(2009), 283-91 and “Religion, spirituality, and health: A review and update,” Advances in Mind-Body Medicine 29(3) (2015), 19-26; D. Larrivee & L. Echarte, “Contemplative meditation and neuroscience: Prospects for mental health,” Journal of Religion & Health 57(3) (2018), 960-78; D. Oman, C.E. Thoresen, and J. Hedberg, ‘Mental health, religion, and culture’, Journal of Psychology & Theology 42(2) (2014), 229-30; K. Pargament, “The psychology of religion and spirituality? Yes and No,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 9(1) (1999), 3-16 and “The bitter and the sweet: An evaluation of the costs and benefits of religiousness,” Psychological Inquiry 13(3) (2002), 168-81; I. R. Payne et al, “Review of religion and mental health: Prevention and enhancement of psychosocial functioning,” Prevention in Human Services 9(2) (1991), 11-40; M. Petres et al, “Mechanisms behind religiosity and spirituality’s effect on mental health, quality of life and well-being,” Journal of Religion & Health 57(5) (2018), 1842-55; L. Rew & Y Wong, “A systematic review of associations among religiosity/spirituality and adolescent health attitudes and behaviors,” Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (2006), 433–42; B-Y. Rhi, “Culture, spirituality, and mental health,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 24(3) (2001), 569-79; A. Shaw, “Religion, spirituality, and posttraumatic growth: A systematic review,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 8(1) (2005), 1-11; K. Siegel et al, “Religion and coping with health-related stress,” Psychology & Health 16(6) (2001), 631-53; T. Sion & P. Nash, ‘Coping through prayer: An empirical study in implicit religion concerning prayers for children in hospital’, Mental Health, Religion & Culture 16, 936-52; L. Vitorino et al, “The association between spirituality and religiousness and mental health,” Scientific Reports 8 (2018); S. Weber & K. Pargament, “The role of religion and spirituality in mental health,” Current Opinion in Psychiatry 27(5) (2014), 358-63; Y. Wong et al., “A systematic review of recent research on adolescent religiosity/spirituality and mental health,” Issues in Mental Health & Nursing 27(2) (2009), 161-83.
[12]    Gen ch 3; Ps 73:26; Isa 40:30; 1Cor 15:42; 2Cor 4:16; CCC 1264; 2448.
[13]    Ps 42:5; cf. 6:3; 5:16; 32:5; 38:5; 39:9,12; 88:3; 107:20 etc.
[14]    Ps 34:18; cf. 145:18; Ex 15:26.
[15]    Job 33:28; Ps 40:2; 103:4; Lam 3:55.
[16]    Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2-13.
[17]    Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Lk 6:36; 7:13; 15:20.
[18]    Jn 11:35.
[19]    Mk 6:6.
[20]    Mt 26:37-9; Jn 13:21.
[21]    Lk 22:44.
[22]    Mt 21:12-7; Mk 11:15-9; Lk 19:45-8; Jn 2:13-6.
[23]    Mk 3:21.
[24]    Mk 3:22; Jn 10:19-20.
[25]    Mt 27:46.
[26]    Jn 9:3. Cf. CCC 2448.
[27]    Isa 53:11; Rom 5:3-5; Jas 1:2; CCC 1501 etc.
[28]    1Jn chs 3 & 4.
[29]    Lk 7:36-50; 8:43-8; 13:10-17; Jn 8:1-11; cf. Rom 8:1; 1Jn 1:9.
[30]    e.g. Lk 5:12-16.
[31]    Lk 7:2-10; Jn 4:46-54.
[32]    Lk 7:11-17; 8:40-49; Jn 11:1-44.
[33]    Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:26-39.
[34]    Lk 4:18-19,38-41; 6:18-9; 7:21-2; 9:11.
[35]    Mt 5:4; 11:19; Mk 3:31-5; Lk 7:34; 10:29-37; 14:12; 15:15.
[36]    Lk 5:27-32; 7:36-50; 9:11-17; 10:38-42; 15:1-2; 19:1-10.
[37]    Mt 10:8; Mk 6:12-3; 16:17-8; Lk 9:2; 10:37.
[38]    Jn 3:16; 10:10; 15:13.
[39]    Rom 8:26-7.
[40]    Acts 9:31; 10:38; 11:24; Rom 8:2-16; 9:1; 14:17; 15:13 etc. Cf. Jn 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7.
[41]    Acts 2:19,22,43; 3:1-16; 4:8-10; 5:12; 9:32-4; 14:8-10; Jas 5:14.
[42]    Gal 5:22-3; CCC 736; 1832.
[43]    CCC 1509.
[44]    CCC 1500-5.
[45]    St. Augustine, City of God, Book 14, 9.