Spirituality as a tool to battle mental illness

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Spirituality as a tool to battle mental illness

Patients within secular mental healthcare institutions struggle to open up about their spirituality or religion. At the same time, religion and spirituality can be beneficial for someone’s mental health. How can religion and spirituality be implemented within the mental healthcare system?

Mental healthcare and religion
Throughout history, religion and spirituality have not played much of a role within mental healthcare. While there are several Christian mental health care institutions in the Netherlands, research showed that 50% of the patients within secular institutions feel the need for spiritual counselling as well.[1]

The soothing role of religion
Psychiatrist and pastor Piet Verhagen argues that religion and spirituality are beneficial for your health.[2] People living within religious communities tend to live longer, according to Verhagen. Therefore, religion and spirituality should have a more prominent place within the (mental) healthcare system.[3] The focus should not only be placed on the illness, but also on questions such as “what does this mean for me?” or “how will I get through it?”

More than half of the patients within secular mental healthcare long for spiritual guidance, according to research conducted last year by Joke van Nieuw Amerongen-Meeuse.[4] One of the participating patients admitted she had doubts about her faith in God, and wanted the opportunity to discuss this within a community. However, she needed help to do so. Other patients wanted guidance on the relationship between their mental illness and their faith, for example when God feels far away during a depression.[5]

Such questions show the need to include spirituality within mental health care. There are multiple reasons why religion and spirituality can be soothing for patients with mental illnesses. First of all, religion can lessen one’s concerns about mental health, which makes them calmer and helps them to cope with their condition. Religion also offers a set of rules to live by, which encourage a balanced lifestyle. The Bible, for instance, condemns intoxication.[6] This might prevent Christians from alcohol addictions.[7]

Creating space for spirituality
This having been said, how can religion or spirituality be integrated within secular mental health institutions? The patients who took part in the research expressed their struggle to open up about their spiritual needs within a secular clinical setting. They were afraid of being misunderstood and hospitalised, deriving from a lack of understanding of religiosity by professionals.[8] A Dutch study among 755 patients within a secular institution showed that two-thirds of the patients who thought their problems were connected to their spirituality or religion, found little opportunity to bring this up during therapy sessions.[9] By creating space for spirituality within treatment, patients have more room to discuss their beliefs and how it affects them. Ways of integrating spirituality include providing spiritual counselling, praying together, and facilitating religious services or activities with patients.[10]

Bridging the gap with spiritual healing
Because there is a gap between a patient’s spiritual needs and the received treatment in secular mental health care, some people visit practitioners of alternative medicine. Spiritual healers look at someone’s condition from a religious perspective, but also offer practical advice from a psychological perspective.[11] Spiritual healers can be found in many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also in smaller religions such as Winti. These practitioners divide illnesses into two categories: those with a natural and those with a supernatural cause.[12] Patients often choose to combine treatments within the normal health care system with alternative medicine practices.[13]

Praying in therapy
Altogether, there has been little room for spirituality and religion within Dutch mental health care. Religion has been perceived as being out of place in the traditional healthcare system by psychologists for a long time. This has resulted in a sense of shame in patients. However, research has shown that spirituality and religion offer health benefits.[14] Therefore, providing space for spiritual counselling, praying together, and discussing religious beliefs in therapy can be helpful in the treatment of mental illnesses.

Laura Waardenburg

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[1] Psychiatrisch patiënten willen méér ruimte voor spiritualiteit in hun behandeling

[2] Geloven is goed voor de gezondheid: ‘Maak het bespreekbaar’

[3] Ibid.

[4] Psychiatrisch patiënten willen méér ruimte voor spiritualiteit in hun behandeling

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ephesians 5:18 “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

[7] Hoffer, C. (2012). Religieuze tradities, volksgeloof en religieuze geneeswijzen in multicultureel Nederland: implicaties voor de GGZ-praktijk. PJ Verhagen, & HJ GM van Megen (red.), Handboek Psychiatrie, religie en spiritualiteit, 179-194.

[8] van Nieuw Amerongen-Meeuse, Joke C, Hanneke Schaap-Jonker, Christina Hennipman-Herweijer, Christa Anbeek, and Arjan W Braam. “Patients’ Needs of Religion/Spirituality Integration in Two Mental Health Clinics in the Netherlands.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing 40, no. 1 (2019): 41–49.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hoffer, C. (2012). Religieuze tradities, volksgeloof en religieuze geneeswijzen in multicultureel Nederland: implicaties voor de GGZ-praktijk. PJ Verhagen, & HJ GM van Megen (red.), Handboek Psychiatrie, religie en spiritualiteit, 179-194.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Psychiatrisch patiënten willen méér ruimte voor spiritualiteit in hun behandeling