2019-02-20
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Many draw on faith as a source of hope and strength during their worst challenges. And for most, this is an incredibly effective coping method. But what if that faith became a professionally accepted tool in the treatment of serious mental health issues?

A study published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal highlights the positive role of nondenominational spirituality in mental health recovery—specifically by combining research-supported treatments with personal spiritual support. This kind of interactivity between spirituality and psychology helps maximize treatment by making use of a patient’s existing spiritual strengths, treating the needs of the whole person rather than simply treating an illness.

Even more telling are the results of Dr. Ann Marie Yamada’s work with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health—also known as LAC-DMH—to design and test a new spiritually-based treatment program. In this program, “The Spiritual Strategies for Psychosocial Recovery,” spirituality is at the forefront, used as a therapeutic tool to teach coping skills.

Participants attended group therapy sessions that integrated spirituality with training on basic coping mechanisms like breathing exercises and goal-setting.

“When people find the strength to improve their coping skills, they are more likely to adhere to their treatment plans and see themselves as active participants in their health and recovery,” says Yamada, an Associate Professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Riverside.

Through a connection with a greater power, spirituality can enhance patients’ sense of hope and of purpose, speeding recovery and enhancing their motivation to see their medically-based treatment though.

Barriers to Care

But while research suggests that spirituality may be a key aspect of the mental health recovery process, patients and caregivers face many barriers when trying to make use of faith. Dr. Yamada may name spirituality as a potentially valuable therapeutic tool, especially in urban communities, but she is also quick to acknowledge the difficulties involved in this approach.

“Stigma prevents many individuals experiencing schizophrenia or bipolar disorders from seeking spiritual or religious support from a faith-based community organization,” she says. “It is difficult for some people to find a community where they feel comfortable and accepted. These concerns may not be shared with mental health providers as they may perceive spiritual needs are not appropriate to discuss.”

Some faiths stigmatize mental illness, considering these afflictions to be a spiritual weakness rather than a real, physical disease. Because of this, those who practice their faith may be reluctant to disclose their struggles to religious leaders and mentors—they fear, at best, that they may not be taken seriously, and at worst, that they will be told that they have done something to deserve their condition. This can lead to the disastrous result of the faithful avoiding medical care.

Likewise, these same patients may be reluctant to bring up their spiritual plight to a mental health professional for fear of dismissal, and care providers may not see faith as an appropriate or productive area of discussion. This causes a huge area of a patient’s life to be completely left out of the discussion during treatment.

This creates a problem. Those suffering from mental illness feel they cannot share their struggles at their place of worship. Those same sufferers also feel that they cannot share their faith-based struggles with mental health professionals. This leaves these patients cut off from spiritual support.

Body and Soul

To create the best healing environment possible, Dr. Yamada encourages mental health professionals and religious leaders to dialogue.

“Involvement of both clinicians and religious leaders is one way to reduce the stereotypes held by both professions. These stereotypes serve as barriers to developing mental health services that integrate spirituality effectively,” she says.

Although this is no easy task due to the mutual distrust of the religious and scientific communities, the result of this dialogue is happier, healthier patients. Naturally, this is what both groups want, in the end.

They key, here, lies not in proving that one group of the other is “right,” but that patients will benefit from both. Fortunately, Dr. Yamada’s work has laid the foundation for this to happen.

Now, let’s take a look at what the average person can do.

Patients should realize that most mental health care providers are comfortable talking about spirituality’s positive impact on their lives, and will be supportive and encouraging. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative, the majority of patients have a very positive experience sharing their spiritual struggles with their health care providers.

Religious leaders, too, are more receptive than most think, especially when the good of the faithful are concerned. If any resistance is met, those suffering from mental illness should be firm in the assertion that their affliction is real, biological, and treatable, while still seeking spiritual help and guidance that can aid in the recovery process.

Healing the entire person—body and soul—takes more than one field. When spiritual  and mental health communities combine forces, as Dr. Yamada has found, the benefits are enormous.

Take a Leap of Faith

With 80 percent of adults sampled across California community mental health centers supporting the use of spirituality within mental health programs, it’s only a matter of time before faith becomes a major tool in treating mental illness.

There’s something very human about wanting to believe—spiritualty is a comfort in this way. And so when we integrate it into mental health programs, patients have the opportunity to see their treatment through a new lens. No longer are they just there for treatment—they’re there to enjoy whatever their culture of spirituality might be, and get treated along the way.

Dr. Yamada looks forward to pushing forward with her research endeavors in order to better understand how spiritually-based treatment might be offered at more locations. And if patients and health care providers are willing to take a small leap of faith, the mental health landscape is about to get just a little bit better.