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Making the Rounds: Religious Diversity and Mental Health

Tanenbaum’s Religious Diversity in Health Care Program recently conducted a Grand Rounds presentation for Jersey Shore University Medical Center’s Psychiatry Department, the third in a series of trainings made possible by a grant from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation

While every medical specialty comes with its own specific set of challenges connected to religious diversity, psychiatry and the mental health profession share a particularly unique relationship with religion and spirituality. 
Mental illness is often broadly defined as behavior that deviates significantly from the norm. But who decides what’s normal? Often it is our culture and religion that dictates these guidelines which makes it all the more important for psychiatrists to be religiously and culturally competent. As it is explained by the American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders: 
“A clinician who is unfamiliar with the nuances of an individual’s cultural frame of reference may incorrectly judge as psychopathology those normal variations in behavior, belief, or experience that are particular to the individual’s culture.” 
For example, seeing a ghost may be a sign of psychosis in a patient from one culture but a completely “normal” belief for another patient. Religion is often closely intertwined with how people view and cope with the world around them and therefore is an area that cannot and should not be ignored by mental health professionals. 
Another area of religion that is of particular significance to mental health professionals is that many individuals turn to their faith for strength, comfort, and guidance in times of illness and stress. Knowledge of religious beliefs is important, not only to separate delusional from non-delusional religious beliefs, but also to understand how patients best cope with challenges that they face in life.    For many patients struggling with mental illness, religion can be a resource for support and healing. To that end, it becomes all the more important for health care providers to take a thorough spiritual assessment and create a safe environment for patients to discuss their spiritual belief or lack of spiritual beliefs.   
These are but a few issues that we covered in our presentation at Jersey Shore University Center. We were very excited to continue our partnership with JSUMC and to explore issues of religio-cultural competency with members of their Psychiatry department.
– Lynn Stoller, Program Associate, Religious Diversity in Health Care