The Meeting of Spirituality and Mental Health

Being aware of patients' religious and spiritual beliefs and incorporating them into treatment can improve outcomes.

The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. 

Definitions of spirituality vary. However, its various descriptions often include transcendence, and openness to exploring a relationship with a higher power or value. And often times, it involves both a process of deriving meaning, purpose, and direction in one’s life, in addition to a process of developing a greater connectedness to self and others. In essence spirituality involves both introspection and connectedness. Thus by its very nature, spirituality is very relevant to mental and emotional health.

Although historically psychiatrists have purposefully steered clear of spirituality in clinical practice, we are now becoming more culturally conscious, and mindful of the necessity to understand its influence in the lives of our patients. In fact, we can assume that most of our patients hold some value related to spirituality. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 91% percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, and almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as spiritual, even if not religious.1

Therefore, recognizing the prevalence of spiritual beliefs among our patients, and being more aware of the increasing evidence suggesting that there is a mental health benefit related to including spirituality in treatment, we should be encouraged to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality in clinical practice. Taking the time to explore and understand the religious and spiritual beliefs of our patients and finding ways to incorporate the positive aspects of their spiritual values into their care may improve treatment outcomes. 

Research related to spirituality and mental health has increased dramatically over the past few decades. The bulk of this literature suggests that the relationship between spirituality/religion and mental health is a positive one even if there are some methodological criticisms that can be made against some of the earlier research.2 Specifically, this data shows that belief in a transcendent being is associated with reduced depressive symptoms.3

Yoga and meditation are also associated with improvements in mental health and reductions in anxiety.4 And in the area of substance abuse, the twelve-step facilitation therapy as used in Alcoholics Anonymous, which calls upon a “spiritual awakening” to ultimately allow substance dependent individuals to function in sobriety, is known to be effective. Seemingly, spirituality expressed in various ways can have positive effects on mental health.