Spirituality and Mental Health

March 30, 2014

I have always been interested in determining the factors that contribute to individual differences and resilience when conducting research.

Lately, I have been reflecting on why some people with a stronger spiritual connection are better able to adapt to stressors in comparison to their less spiritual counterparts. Studies have shown that a positive spiritual orientation helps people cope and makes them resilient in the face of life’s challenges. In my opinion, it is very important to be aware of your beliefs, values and spiritual orientation because it all relates to your physical and mental well-being. Although this article raises the issue of spirituality versus religion, my focus here is solely on spirituality as it relates to mental well-being even though they do often overlap. 

What is spirituality?

According to the Mental Health Foundation (2013), there is no single definition of spirituality, however, it is generally something everyone can experience and it helps us find meaning or purpose in life. Spirituality can be viewed as an extension or broader aspect of religion. It often brings hope in times of suffering and loss and encourages us to seek the best relationships with ourselves, others and what lies beyond. Spirituality can be expressed through faith or religion and that is through acts of worship, prayer and other religious practices. Some spiritual beliefs are specific to an individual whereas others are attached to a religion and hence shared by a large number of individuals. Spirituality often becomes more important in times of distress, emotional stress, physical and mental illness, loss, bereavement and in dealing with death.

Spirituality and Healthcare

Although health care tries to cure disease, spirituality tries to do more. It views life as a journey, where your experiences both positive and negative can help you learn and develop. Spirituality can play an important role in helping people maintain good mental health and live with or recover from mental health disorders. In other words, spirituality can be viewed as an aid to resilience.

What is the relationship between spirituality and psychological well-being?

According to the American Psychological Association (2013), empirical studies of many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disasters, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally helpful to people in coping, especially people with the fewest resources facing the most difficult problems. On the other hand, a growing body of research has linked spiritual struggles to higher levels of psychological distress, declines in physical health and even a greater risk of mortality. Therefore, it is important for psychologists and other healthcare providers to be aware of the dual nature of religion and spirituality.

How can spirituality be incorporated in mental health treatment?

Mental health professionals need to be able to distinguish between a spiritual crisis and a mental illness, particularly when these overlap. In essence, mental health services should respect clients’ spirituality.

According to the Mental Health Foundation (2013), a mental health service culture that responds to spiritual needs acknowledges the spirituality in people’s lives; gives clients and staff opportunities to talk about spirituality and its link to their well-being; helps clients express their spirituality and to have the right to incorporate it in their treatment plan. Because people express themselves differently, spiritual beliefs can influence the decisions clients make about their treatment or how they would like to be supported. Therefore, keeping those beliefs in mind when conducting treatment is essential. People in general want to talk about their spirituality but may sometimes shy away from it due to the fact that they may think it is frowned upon in the mental health field. This is however quite contrary to what the majority of mental health practitioners believe.

Do mental health practitioners incorporate spirituality in clinical practice? If not, should it be incorporated in clinical practice?

For many years, mental health professionals steered clear of spirituality in clinical practice perhaps because they lack training in this area. For many people, spirituality is a key part of their life which is why it is important to attend to spirituality in practice.

New research is showing that spiritually integrated approaches to treatment are as effective as other treatments. Over recent years there has been increasing interest in treatments that include the spiritual dimension. These include programmes such as the 12-step programme for alcohol and substance abuse in addition to new approaches such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression (MBCT) and compassion-focused therapy. I think that spiritually integrated programmes would be effective if utilised towards forgiveness programmes and programmes to help victims of sexual and other forms of abuse to deal with their trauma.

What are some of the ethical issues mental health practitioners may face as a result of incorporating spirituality in this practice?

Mental health professionals are ethically obliged to be respectful and attentive to the cultural diversity of their clients. Because spirituality elicits deep feelings in people and because it reflects people's deepest values, practising psychologists must be careful when approaching this topic. Whether or not mental health professionals are personally religious and spiritual, they have to be aware of how their orientation might knowingly or unknowingly impact their clients. They must also take steps to protect the clients’ decision making freedom and autonomy. An open discussion with clients about the values that underlie treatment may be one of the most important ways to ensure ethical practice.