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Saturday, April 17, 1999 Published at 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK


Religion tackles mental illness

Many people with mental illness are abandoned by the community

Religious leaders are to increase their role in caring for the mentally ill.

They say many clergy are unprepared to deal with the mental health problems they face on a day-to-day basis.

But on Monday they will say it is the duty of religious groups to care for the mentally ill.

The Religion and Severe Mental Illness Conference aims to "raise awareness of the issue of mental illness as the proper concern of religious leaders and those involved in or associated with religion".

It will be addressed by leaders of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

They will discuss how religion can provide support to other community workers in the care of mentally ill patients, and will explore the wider issues of how religion can help people cope with mental illness.

Clinical basis to religion's role

Psychiatrists acknowledge that a mentally ill patient's strong religious beliefs can provide a solid platform for therapy.

This is because much therapy will begin with something the patient holds as certain and building from there.

Key speakers include:

  • Stephen Sykes, the Bishop of Ely
  • Dr Zaki Badawi, the Principal of the Muslim College
  • Dr Jonathan Sacks, the UK's Chief Rabbi
The Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill arranged the meeting.

Martin Aaron, chairman of the association, is also a member of a multi-faith working party on mental illness.

[ image: Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is to address the conference]
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is to address the conference
He said: "Often clergy are in the front line. They get members of their community approaching them because they have a problem and they need assistance with it.

"In the majority of cases they haven't the experience or knowledge of what to say or do, or who to recommend the person to.

One of the aims of the conference is to rectify this, he said.

He said the clergy will receive training in how to tackle mental health problems, which would be "a great support to local services".

He said this would be an important addition to the concept of care in the community.

History of mental illness and religion

The conference will also look at religion's treatment of mental illness in the past.

[ image: The Church of England will examine its role in caring for the mentally ill]
The Church of England will examine its role in caring for the mentally ill
Mr Aaron said: "There have been many different misunderstandings about the mentally ill down the ages.

"It's the old indoctrination into the minds of our forebears that's been handed down for centuries.

"People think of people who have a severe mental illness as being demonic and likely to kill you if you meet them in the streets."

He said this still persisted in the way the media presents the rare incidents where a mentally ill person attacks a member of the public.

People have also misunderstood the causes of mental illness through the ages.

Old beliefs

Dr Badawi said Muslim culture had always supported mentally ill people, although some people may have been over-zealous in their attempts to cure them.

Traditional Islamic belief has it that mental illness is caused by a djin - or genie - entering the afflicted person.

The belief that spirits cause mental illness by invading an individual is common to all the major religions.

In some cases, people would try to beat the djin out of the patient, and sometimes this could result in death, Dr Badawi said.

But now Muslims in developed western countries have adopted the views of science, that mental illness is a function of the body, and is caused by genes and chemical activity in the brain, he said.

"Modern educated Muslims would not accept that the djin goes into the body. The treatment now is that people would go to psychiatrist."

Culture of caring

It has always been a part of Islam to care for the ill, Dr Badawi said.

[ image: Mosques can form a centrepoint for care in the community]
Mosques can form a centrepoint for care in the community
He said: "The people who had no grip on reality at all were always cared for with people feeding them, clothing them, cleaning them, serving them, because they see this is a meritorious act, and God would reward them more."

This is still the case now - the modern Muslim community in Europe is likely to provide a network of support for the mentally ill, he said.

One example he gave was that of a man with schizophrenia who called himself Mufti 666 - the word mufti means a specialist in religion.

He would send Dr Badawi re-interpretations of the Koran and make predictions about the future.

"People looked after him," Dr Badawi said.

"Sometimes they laughed at some of his hallucinations or silly ideas, but that does not mean they in any way shunned him - he was part of the community."

Touched by God

Through the ages some people have also seen the mentally ill as more religious as others - in stark contrast to the popular demonisation of such people.

"There were those who thought they were just afflicted - that God wished them to be so sick and that's it.

"Then others considered that perhaps they are the chosen of God, they are really saints - they have no grip on reality because the only reality to them is God."

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