Spirituality and mental health are often thought of as two separate tracks in a person's life. This six-part series aims to begin stitching them together, along with therapy, to reveal the critical areas where they influence each other.
This article is intended for information purposes only and is not intended as a guide for any reader’s specific mental health situation. If you are struggling with mental or emotional symptoms, see your physician for a physical checkup and consult a mental health professional.
Matt, a man in his mid-20s, rolled his eyes as his father George again shifted the focus of our session to his chronic lower back pain. “It’s all he talks about,” Matt said. “You want your father back, is that it?” I asked. “Yep,” Matt replied. I asked George, who had been on permanent disability for several years, “Can you tell your son something that is difficult for you about being human beyond your physical pain?” He paused and looked confused. “Well …,” he started, pausing some more before turning to his son and offering these profound words: “I’m completely lost, I’m trying to live without meaning and purpose.” George’s words captured the spiritual predicament expressed in Thoreau’s famous line in Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Modern mental health care has tried for decades to find its place in a medical system that still sees the body primarily as a machine and gives little heed to the conscious being inhabiting it. Sure, we talk about the health effects of stress and the mind-body connection, but mental health care is still too much about imitating mainstream medicine: Diagnose the problem and offer treatment to resolve symptoms. It is a system in which people in crisis who spend time in psychiatric wards often come out feeling ashamed and warehoused. Medications are started or adjusted, but many such patients report not having a single contact with another human being who truly seemed to want to understand the pain that brought the person to the hospital.
I think of the practice of psychology (the study of the human psyche, a Greek word meaning breath, life, or soul) as a form of care of the soul that can heal the mind and body. We are, each of us, more than a conglomeration of trillions of cells. The mystery with which we all live and for which science has no cogent explanation—our consciousness—matters. Just as a person who lives in a house has a great impact on how the house is kept, the conscious presence (soul, spirit) in us determines much about how things go with our bodies, thoughts, emotions—and our lives.
In my thirty years as a psychologist, I’ve found that people are hungry for an approach to mental health care that goes beyond diagnosis and treatment. Not one of the hundreds of mental illness diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) has a clear biological marker (a blood or genetic test that can give a definitive diagnosis). It seems to me that mental health professionals are trained to believe too much in diagnostic labels. When we say a person is depressed, does that tell us everything we need to know about what kind of care she or he needs? "Depressed" gets us in the ballpark, but it’s a word for a condition that can arise from a multitude of human situations and struggles.
I heard once that some Native Americans wouldn’t say, “This is an oak tree.” Instead, to preserve the fundamental mystery beneath all things, they would say, “This is what we call an oak tree.” I always want to be of two minds as I assess human suffering. Even when a patient and I agree that a label such as “depression” fits, we stay open to the mystery of what is unfolding in her or his life. This allows us also to see depression or any other condition as a spiritual invitation, not just a problem to be rid of. Why does this dual approach seem so important to me? Billions of dollars are spent every year on pharmaceutical advertisements that do their best to convince us that our spirits have nothing to do with our emotional wellbeing. It’s just a chemical imbalance, they want us to believe, and our drug will fix that for you. While drugs can help with some problems, true healing involves body, mind, and spirit.
Thousands of studies of psychotherapy have shown that therapeutic techniques account for only about 15 percent of the statistical variance in outcome data. The combination of two “common factors,” the therapist-patient relationship and hope, accounts for three times that much. I consider both of those common factors to be “spiritual.” The most active ingredient in therapy is the therapeutic relationship—not just therapist/patient rapport, but a deep connection between one human being and another. Hope, the second common factor, is not a technique but a buoy offered by one human being to another that invites a hopeless, struggling, ashamed, or stigmatized person back to his or her full humanness. Hope also stimulates chemical changes in the body that can promote healing.
In this six-part series, I will be considering how spirituality can be vital to addressing the most common problems people bring to mental health professionals. The next four segments will discuss how a spiritual perspective can be healing for depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, and addiction. In the final segment, I’ll discuss how spirituality can be an important part of therapy and how you can be an active participant in receiving therapy that integrates a spiritual perspective.