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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Religious Influence

Q. Could you direct me to any research or literature regarding the dangers of evangelical, religious healing practices, such as speaking in tongues, laying of hands, etc. precipitating a psychotic episode? As a psychologist in charge of a psychosocial rehabilitation program, I am especially interested in any documented dangers for individuals who are already getting treated for schizophrenia.

A. I am not aware of any published research documenting such putative dangers, specifically stemming from evangelical healing practices. There are some data pertaining to psychiatric diagnoses in members of Christian sects. Dalgalarrondo & Lotz (Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 1993;243(1):47-53) compared socio-demographical and clinical characteristics between members of Christian sects and the remaining general inpatient population admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Germany between 1978 and 1991. In comparison to the general patient population, Christian sect patients presented significantly more frequently with a diagnosis of functional psychoses (p<0.02) and less frequently with diagnoses of neuroses (p<0.10). But this, of course, doesn't necessarily point to any causal link between sect membership and onset of psychosis.

On the contrary, one study suggests that some types of religious affiliation may be helpful to those recovering from a psychotic illness. Kirov et al (Psychopathology 1998;31(5):234-245) studied 52 patients with psychosis who were interviewed regarding their religious beliefs after their index admission. 69.4% of the patients were religious, and 11 (22.4%) stated that religion was the most important part of their lives. 30.4% of the sample described that there had been an increase in their religiousness after the onset of illness. 61.2% of patients were using their religion for coping with the illness. Such patients had a better insight into their illness and were more compliant with antipsychotic medication.

That said, my clinical intuition is that there probably are some highly vulnerable individuals with psychotic illness who may be worsened by overly-intrusive or intense physical contacts with certain religious groups--but I was unable to find any empirical support for this in my literature search. However, you may want to read the piece entitled, "Faith or Delusion? At the Crossroads of Religion and Psychosis" by Joseph Pierre MD, in the May 2001 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. You can contact Dr. Pierre c/o UCLA School of Medicine, at 11301 Wilshire Blvd, Bld 210C [B-151H], Los Angeles CA. Maybe he has some clinical experience with the phenomenon you are concerned about. You may also be interested in the article by PR Saucer, entitled, "Evangelical renewal therapy: a proposal for integration of religious values into psychotherapy. Psychol Rep 1991 Dec;69(3 Pt 2):1099-1106.

December 2001

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