In a highly religious and conservative country like the Philippines, it’s still pretty common for people to believe that prayers can solve anything — not least of which would be mental illnesses. Opening up to someone regarding personal problems is likely to earn you the response along the lines of: “have you tried praying?” Religion continues to be perceived as the ultimate boon and all-powerful answer.
Having studied in only Catholic schools from the time I was in kindergarten up to University, I have lost count of the times adult figures approached problems with the solution of a prayer. From natural calamities to failing grades, putting trust in your faith was always the suggestion. But this is pretty standard for a religious institution. It only really became baffling when my teachers and guidance counselor directed me to the chapel when divulging my personal problems.
Instead of offering constructive help or even an open ear, I was told that praying would help me through my symptoms of anxiety. When I broke down in my homeroom teacher’s office due to a panic attack I was encouraged to “confide my problems in God.” My friends who were caught with scars on their wrists and legs were advised to keep a stronger relationship with their faith.
Coming home to a similarly religious family was not exactly helpful either. The elder members of my family are known to spew logic like “depression is caused by the devil”. When one of my relatives went through a midlife crisis and experienced feelings like depression and anxiety, the lolas of the family gossiped that it was because she had stopped going to mass.
The harm of purely relying on religion in response to different mental health issues is that it makes it into a sort of cure. People treat it as if it is a tried-and-tested remedy but that simply isn’t the case. Spending a few minutes, or even a few hours, a day praying is not likely to magically balance your emotions. Declining mental health is a real problem that needs real solutions. While prayers may give some people comfort, it’s not the answer for everyone.
Actual treatment of a person’s mental wellbeing will, more often than not, be more productive than time spent worshipping. There are some issues that go beyond maintaining a personal relationship with whatever deity you hold, no matter how strong your faith. Seeking professional help, trying out medication, or even a complete change in lifestyle — these are tangible ways to help someone in need.
When you fall back on simply propagating prayers you ignore the reality that there is a proper way to respond to mental health. It strengthens the stigma against mental health as it turns it into a smaller problem than it actually is. That, or it invalidates the need for any help beyond clasped hands and whispered words. While faith and religion can be a source of solace for some, we can’t fully rely on it especially for those who need to seek professional help or have a support system.
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