December 4, 2019 by John Fernandez
Spirituality and Mental Health: Treating Mind, Body and Spirit
While medical approaches to disease and healing have long used science and data to identify and treat the root cause of illness, psychological counseling to assess and treat mental health conditions has traditionally not addressed one of the core factors impacting a person’s life. Long used as the golden standard for pastoral care counseling, there’s now widespread support for the benefits of using spiritually-integrated psychotherapy to help people struggling with behavioral health conditions.
“A holistic approach to mental healthcare and wellness means therapists understand and respect the emotional, spiritual and cultural components of healing,” said Rev. Renato Santos, assistant vice president of spiritual care at Baptist Health South Florida. “A large body of evidence points to how our spiritual values and behaviors can lead to physical and psychological well-being.”
In the United States, 89 percent of adults believe in “God or a universal spirit,” a Pew Research Center study found. Effective therapy for mental health conditions addresses the body, mind and spirit, according to the American Counseling Association (ACA).
Clinical mental healthcare that integrates psychology and behavioral health expertise with the wisdom of spirituality, religion and theology helps alleviate symptoms, fosters coping skills and helps change negative behaviors to positive actions, according to the basic beliefs of pastoral counseling, an area in which Rev. Santos has expertise.
“Spiritual or religious beliefs are part of what patients bring with them into the counseling room – they don’t check them at the door,” says Rev. Santos, a licensed psychotherapist who oversees the outpatient psychotherapy program at Baptist Health’s Care & Counseling. “Successful psychotherapy involves helping patients connect or reconnect with their spiritual and social resources to resolve their problems. Spiritually-integrated counseling provides patients with insight that can be accessed and practiced as crises come through the life cycle.”
Research noted in U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) publications cite people’s common belief that there’s a relationship between religious or spiritual practice with health and healing.
References to “basic spiritual values” are also common in the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Practicing compassion-based faith leadership, he advocates that human qualities of goodness, kindness, love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, human warmth and caring are essential to survival. He believes spirituality is a mental attitude that, when practiced, can make people calmer, happier and more peaceful.
Recognizing Spirituality Helps Mental Health Counseling
Understanding a person’s spiritual values can help them get in touch with the way they’re thinking and feeling, which in turn, influences the behavioral decisions they make, says the ACA.
“Most commonly underlying depression and anxiety are family issues or difficulty adjusting to a stressful situation,” Rev. Santos says. “Spiritually-integrated counseling includes helping the individual connect to a support system that can reestablish broken family relationships or reinterpret unhealthy misperceptions.”
He explains how the approach is similar to the one clinicians take to address the vicious cycle many people with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular problems, encounter.
“When chronic disease leads to depression and anxiety, the patient’s medical condition exacerbates and they’re not as motivated or compliant or able to follow up to use the resources available to them,” he says. “By giving them tools that treat their conditions – medication and adjunct therapies – their doctor helps get them back on a healthy track.”
What spiritually-integrated psychotherapy is not, Rev. Santos stresses, is a prescription for a specific religion or religious group. Instead, it’s about working within patients’ own framework of faith to help them find or reconnect towards their spiritual resources to recover.
“We know through empirical data that someone who is generally involved or connected to a community of faith has better health outcomes, more robust life experiences and overall longevity,” Rev. Santos says. “Studies have shown that people who can articulate a clear understanding of their relationship with a ‘higher power’ cope better with sickness and adversity.”
In addition to faith- or spiritually based resources, there are specific non-faith resources that therapists can help patients find, including support groups for bereavement, depression and other conditions that may be affecting mental health.
“What is at the root of the human condition is a combination of body, mind and spirit,” he said. “Spiritually-integrated counseling involves sitting with the individual and looking at all three components with them to achieve a healthy balance between emotional and physical health. When a person learns through therapy how to integrate their spiritual beliefs and resources into their everyday life, they can access and practice it to cope better in a crisis and for long-term growth and well-being.”