Spirituality and Mental Health
The concept of spirituality can be a rather elusive term – most people know what it means to them, and yet it’s quite difficult to put it into words and give it one conclusive definition. One of the reasons for this could be the fact that it is so deeply personal and ingrained in each of us that it defies a simple definition. Nonetheless, spirituality plays an integral part in the lives of countless people. The unique role it has in shaping a person’s view of the world and of their place in it means it can also prove to be a crucial element when it comes to someone’s mental health, particularly someone who’s endured significant hardship.
What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?
Before we get to its connection with mental health, we need to try and get to the bottom of what spirituality actually represents. Depending on the person you’re speaking to, spirituality could be seen as: a framework for understanding the way of the world and where we fit in it, a belief in some higher power (which may or may not be religious in nature), a sense that material things are not the be-all and end-all of our existence, a feeling of connectedness, and many more(1). This list could probably contain nearly as many items as there are people who identify themselves as spiritual – we could perhaps say that it is an inner philosophy which helps an individual ascribe meaning to their surroundings, whatever that meaning and those surroundings may be.
If someone were to read out the preceding list and assume we were talking about being religious, we couldn’t fault them for it, which is why we need to address the relation between these two terms which tread a lot of common ground – so much so that they are frequently and erroneously used interchangeably. For many people, these two notions go hand in hand and their spirituality is expressed through their religious beliefs and practices. However, that need not be the case, as a person can be deeply spiritual without belonging to any formally recognized religion.
Being religious entails subscribing to a set of widely known tenets which are derived from scripture and shared by all members of that religious community. On the other hand, spirituality is uniquely individual and may contain facets not found anywhere else. In other words, religiousness is centered on externally prescribed principles and values, whereas spirituality revolves around an individual’s quest for meaning – it might be argued that religion is the institutionalized form of spirituality.
The Connection with Mental Health
While it may be up for debate whether we’ve managed to fully explain this complicated notion in the previous section, we hope we’ve at least provided enough food for thought for you to be able to come up with an answer as to what spirituality means for you personally. Having done that, we can move on to the way it relates to mental health.
Medical experts are aware that religiousness and spirituality can play a part in a patient’s mental health, but the practical application of these notions in a clinical setting is still a challenge, as put forward by this study(2). The same paper also found that the best current method of integrating spirituality into mental health treatment would be for the psychiatrist to take the patient’s spiritual history, which may lead to improved satisfaction, compliance, and outcomes for the patient.
It’s not difficult to see the merits of this approach. As a general practitioner would take your medical history in order to create a starting point for his or her attempts to figure out what is going on with your body, a psychiatrist would similarly need to establish a baseline for a patient’s mental processes. Discussing a patient’s spiritual beliefs and principles could provide invaluable insights in this regard, paving the way for future breakthroughs. If nothing else, it can be the key to establishing a rapport between the medical professional and the patient, which is one of the cornerstones of psychiatric treatment.
Support and Coping
It does not take a medical degree to realize that spirituality can be essential in providing a coping mechanism to a person who’s suffered psychological turmoil or is currently embroiled in it – that’s where the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes comes from (although we must, once again, point out that religion and spirituality are not the same). There is a notable body of research covering this topic and we’ll cite a few examples in order to illustrate our point.
One such study(3) states that religion and spirituality have the potential to stimulate mental health by providing community and support, affirmative beliefs, and coping mechanisms, but that they can also be harmful (by propagating misunderstanding and the negative versions of what was previously listed), which is why medical practitioners need an increased level of awareness regarding these matters – so they could accentuate the good aspects and stifle the bad. Another study(4) looked at the recovery of 6 people who had suffered from mental illnesses and noted that they found the holistic approach and spirituality to be vital to their recovery process.
Finally, the last study(5) we’ll mention in this section examined the connection between spirituality and religion and the wellbeing of older patients who were hospitalized. Their findings showed that spiritual experiences and religious activities correlated with superior psychological health and increased levels of social support.
Dealing with Addiction
While not everyone may be aware of it, addiction is officially recognized as a mental illness. This is evidenced by the fact that both the American Psychiatric Association and the National Institute on Drug Abuse define it as a “brain disease”(6)(7). And if you were to assume that spirituality could also be hugely important to this aspect of what we now know is mental wellbeing, you’d be absolutely right.
This is clearly seen in the famous 12-step model, probably the most well-known program of its kind. A study(8) surveyed 527 attendees of American Narcotics Anonymous meetings and found that they were more inclined toward a spiritual orientation than any formal religion, as well as that this spirituality was integral to their abstinence as it was associated with reduced cravings.
Even though it’s clearly not the easiest notion to comprehend, spirituality is immensely important to a great many people. As such, it’s no wonder it can be a large contributor to a person’s mental wellbeing. Medical experts and authorities have taken note of this and we are likely to see more spiritual aspects make their way into psychiatric treatment in the years to come. But there is no need to wait for things to escalate to such a degree before you turn to spirituality – even under everyday circumstances, when things start to get a little overwhelming, simply looking inward and reflecting on the way we decide what matters to us can be enough to provide a measure of relief in times of psychological stress and help us set our priorities straight.