There is a need for more culturally-specific research on mental health well-being and religion, in order to inform the Catholic Church as well as other churches on how to respond to the needs of the people they serve.
This was one of the findings of research undertaken by young Samoan-New Zealand theologian Dr Therese Lautua entitled “But who do you say I am? – Images of God, mental well-being and Pacific young women”. She spoke at a Zoom meeting arranged by Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College on March 31.
“My biggest recommendation would be that the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference could offer grants at a nationwide level, specifically targeting mental well-being projects in each diocese,” she said, adding this is already practised in England and Wales, as well as in many of the dioceses in the United States.
Dr Lautua said that, while suicide deaths among Pacific peoples are lower compared to the wider New Zealand population, in terms of suicide ideation, plans and attempts, Pacific youth are at a higher rate compared to the rest of the population.
“I chose to do this research out of a desire to help young women nurture their mental well-being from a theological and faith perspective, and it was borne out of seeing too many young people, particularly our Pacific young people, suffer from mental illness and consider suicide,” she said.
She undertook qualitative interviews of 64 Catholic, mixed Pacific heritage women aged 17-24.
“As well as identifying as Roman Catholic and having a mixed Pacific heritage, family life and social media also intersect on how these young women discern who God is for them, and how they see themselves in the world, and therefore how images of God might contribute to suicide prevention,” she said.
Dr Lautua said that a large section of her research was framed around Social Trinitarianism, which “focuses on an analogy of three distinct human persons as its starting point, rather than the classical western psychological analogy of a single person”.
She said that, for a Pacific person, “an individual’s identity is only fully realised in terms of their relationship with the wider community, and it’s a subsidiary of the cosmos”, which “causes them to meditate more deeply on the Trinity’s meaning”.
“If the relational social nature of the Trinity is more greatly emphasised in the Christian community, I think this will allow people an opportunity to be open to relationships throughout their lives, which in turn can positively impact mental well-being,” she said.
Images of God
Dr Lautua asked her respondents to describe God relating to their family, the Church and their personal lives.
Unsurprisingly, when relating God to their family, the young women see God as male, a defender, strict, and linked to the rosary.
When they are asked what their images of God in the Church are, the Eucharist and the crucifix were the dominant images, followed by the congregation (people of God), light/candles and the priest.
Their positive image of God is one who is everywhere and surrounding them with love.
The young women with a good relationship with their father would call God “father”. Others who were brought up by single mothers would not use a male pronoun for God.
They also linked God with creation as well as love, a friend and being forgiving.
“[Of the] negative images of God that came up, probably number one was that of God being absent or distant from them,” Dr Lautua said.
She said that, at the time of the interviews, Israel Folau’s hurtful comments on gay people were raging on social and mainstream media and came across strongly.
“A lot of the women got very emotional, because they knew family members who identified with a different sexuality, but they didn’t know how to convey, you know, like their care for them from a spiritual point of view,” she said.
Those with family members from a different denomination would also tell them that God is anti-Catholic and therefore, they would go to hell.
“The last one that was negative (was) that they felt some people thought God could only have white skin, or only be imaged in that way,” she said.
Other key findings
Fifty-two out of the 64 respondents said that their image of God would help them have positive mental well-being.
“As young Catholic women navigate issues of womanhood and sexuality, their faith is also influenced by visual representations of God, the saints and Catholicism,” Dr Lautua said. “It’s also important in our tradition that we’re exposed to lots of different artwork depicting the divine and the saints which, alongside the theology of the Trinity, really impacts how young women might perceive God.”
Faith, family and friends as well as the community are seen as beneficial resources for mental health, as well as not being afraid to access professional mental health care.
Dr Lautua said that there was also a strong emphasis on knowing their identity.
“Overall, the focus group participants thought that there needed to be a more visible connection between faith and mental well-being in the local Catholic Church environment, whether it be through workshops, retreats . . . faith mentoring programme[s], developing some kind of online resource, or working in our numerous Catholic high schools,” she said.
Dr Lautua said that there are already a lot of Catholic mental well-being programmes and resources that can be utilised, as seen from examples overseas.
“Understanding God from these young women’s point of view, we can see it as God is one who is complete, whole and at peace in diversity within persons of the Trinitarian Godhead. This sees God as the origin of our ancestors from each of our cultures, God is one who is truly present in the Eucharist, and present in the stars and the oceans our ancestors used to navigate the globe,” Dr Lautua summarised.
“[They see] God as the love which binds things together in relationships with our families, who are so important in each of our lives.”
“This snapshot of how these young women voyage through their different cultural worlds, and weave together strands of their identity as one small part of the body of Christ and a vibrant glimpse of the glory of God,” she said.