Religion, HIV & Mental Health

This week, Nina Lakhani reported on the disturbing case of the Evangelical Christian Church which has been encouraging members of its congregation to cease taking medication altogether in favour of prayer alone.

The report revealed that three people died after discontinuing Anti Retro Viral treatment on recommendation of their pastor. In addition, it was also reported that a man committed suicide after following the advice of a pastor who convinced him to stop taking medication, believing that he was not suffering from a mental health illness. The cases are tragic and disturbing, but also highlight the gross misunderstandings that exist surrounding certain illnesses amongst religious communities and religious leaders.

In the case of mental health, there still exists a plethora of erroneous beliefs about mental health, ranging from ideas about aetiology to treatment. There exists a longstanding and often cited belief that “evil spirits” are a source of psychosis. In addition, amongst religious communities, I have often heard people with mental health illnesses such as depression being described as “being weak in faith”. Or that depression does not “exist” in Islam or Christianity. Such comments are not only flagrantly incorrect but are destructive to those with mental health problems and simply accentuate the stigma and discrimination that they already face.

In the case of HIV, a myriad of myths have circulated regarding both the causes and treatment of HIV which have been prevalent for decades. Recently, whilst I was in Ethiopia, I heard anecdotes of congregants of a church who had abandoned their Anti Retroviral treatment and opted, instead to bathe in holy river water.  It is worth mentioning, that bathing in holy water in itself is not necessarily a harmful practice, but discontinuing Anti Retroviral treatment against medical advice, is.

Kaiser Khan is well versed in navigating the religious beliefs of people living with HIV. Khan is the Muslim and Middle Eastern Support Coordinator at Naz Project London, the sexual health and HIV prevention and support service aimed at Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BME), and has over 15 years experience of working with people living with HIV, who  often espouse to a particular religious faith.

“We don’t ignore religion” says Khan.

He explains further:  “a great proportion of our work is geared towards encouraging our clients to understand the medication that they are taking, to adhere to them, to understand the side effects, the regimen; so that they can be fully empowered to look after their health, this is not possible without taking medication”. “However, another part is to encourage resilience…and many of our clients feel that religion is important to them; it offers solace, hope and faith”.

One noteworthy person who understands the importance of both the physical and spiritual is Canon Gideon Byamugisha,  Canon Gideon was the first African religious leader to openly announce his HIV positive status and has expressed how ARVs and the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV have enabled him to have a healthy life and two HIV negative children. In his book, “Church communities confronting HIV and AIDS”, he clearly debunks the myths and lays science alongside Christian scripture and prayer.

Whatever our own personal views about religion, one must appreciate that a vast proportion of the world adheres to a particular religion or faith.

Physicians and health professions need to be cognizant of both the positive and negative role of religious leaders to patients’ health and well being, whilst also being religiously and culturally sensitive.

In addition, religious leaders need to be informed and educated about the causes and remedies of medical illnesses so that they can offer pastoral support to their congregation, which is appropriate, constructive and at the very least, not detrimental.

Original Article By Dr Sima Barmania at The Independent

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