After the fall semester, I was tired. I was tired of quarantine, tired of school, and tired of political debates. I had recently started a new dosage of antidepressants and my body was spent. The medication and the pandemic confined me to the comfort of my bed. Despite my stagnant state, I desperately wanted a change of scenery. I wanted a way to escape my childhood bedroom that I had spent way too much time in during 2020. So during my break, I read. I read a lot. I read memoirs, historical fiction, romance novels, and opinion-editorials. I visited Yale with Marina Keegan in The Opposite of Loneliness, time traveled to the 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago in The Great Believers, and took a whirlwind trip to Ghana, Alabama, and California with my good friend Gifty, a character in Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi.
Transcendent Kingdom follows Gifty, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. She was raised in Alabama by Ghanaian-American immigrants and the reader catches glimpses of Gifty’s childhood intertwined with her current life at Stanford. Through both the past and the present, the impact that her church, the First Assemblies of God, had on her family is noticeable. Gifty grew up writing daily to God in her journal and being a true believer. But Gifty’s relationship with her faith was later strained due to the racist, sexist, and ableist aspects of her church—especially as these played out through her mother’s mental health crisis and her brother’s struggle with a drug addiction. Now as a 26 year old, she has begun to veer away from her religion, studying the science of addiction and mental health to help cope with the trauma she endured. The book beautifully captures the riveting relationship that Gifty has with religion and science.
As a child raised with a Christian faith, I was taught to pray to God when I was plagued with worry or feeling down—to put my faith in this almighty higher power to sustain me. For some, this works. It is important for me to acknowledge that people can use religion in powerful ways to support their mental health, by praying for example. Though I could sometimes find counsel and peace in biblical teachings, I haven’t found that praying to God or any religious act can cure my anxiety or depression. I rely on medication and counseling backed in science to make my life more manageable, and I feel fortunate that I have had access to seeking the care that I want and that works for me.
Throughout reading Transcendent Kingdom I couldn’t help but wonder if Gifty’s story would have looked a lot different if her faith community had a different mindset. What would have happened if they had access to different medical care? What if her church community viewed addiction scientifically instead of as an evil force from God?
How have your own experiences with religion impacted your experience and understanding of mental health? How do you see science and religion interacting with one another?