Spirituality and mental health

BY DANIELLE NELSON

Monday, January 04, 2016

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Recent events have brought into focus, once again, the intersection of religion and spiritual beliefs and mental illness. Jamaicans commonly hold beliefs ranging from deep conviction to distant deference to things spiritual. One is, therefore, led to ask, what is the line between spirituality and health?


Brain as organ


The conflict this question highlights is seen, perhaps, most starkly in mental health. Mental health issues bring about changes in perception, mood, thought, and behaviour, which are the same things we use to measure humanness, character and personality.


As such people often forget that the brain is still an organ of the body, just as the heart or lungs are. The brain being an organ means it is also susceptible to disease, malformation and dysfunction. If someone is unwell with the heart, the common response is to take them to the doctor or hospital. For the religious, that means simultaneously seeking divine intervention through prayer. We have to ask ourselves, what causes us to see the brain as different from any other organ?


Jamaican psychiatrist Dr Anthony Allen uses the illustration of the brain like a car, and the person as the driver. If the car breaks down, it does not mean the person is bad driver or a bad person. It means the car has to be taken to the right mechanic to be fixed. So it is with the brain.


Stigma


Stigma still plays a large part in the minimisation of psychological and psychiatric disease. Mental illness remains one of the most stigmatised illness categories worldwide. The stereotypes and limitations placed on people living with mental health challenges, cause people to exclude psychiatric disorder as an explanation of symptoms. This leads to poor health seeking behaviour, which results in undue suffering as the illness becomes more complex and hard to manage, the longer it is left untreated.




False dichotomy


The dissonance between spirituality and mental health may also be related to the human tendency for reductionist and separatist thinking. Neil Anderson argues the "two-tiered world view". He states that in western societies, the focus is on science and empiricism to the exclusion of what cannot be tested, including spirituality and religion. Divergently, other cultures tend towards predominantly spiritual explanations, largely divorcing healing from the advances of science. Anderson, along with several other noted theologians and scientists, propose that in reality we exist in a world where the natural and supernatural both operate.




Spirituality in medicine


McCord and others found that 83 per cent of a group of 1,400 North American adults wanted their physician to make specific inquiry about their spiritual history in caring for them. In the opposite vein, Huguelet and Mohr cited one study in which 25 per cent of persons with psychotic disorders demonstrated poor adherence to treatment and more negative outcomes because of spiritual and religious beliefs that excluded medical explanations.


This suggests that the answer to our question is that there is no line, but rather a complex interplay of biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors. Research has long supported belief in God as protective against a variety of adverse physical and mental health outcomes. Existing only in the spiritual realms and excluding medicine, denies people of the help they need. Stigmatisation has too long ravaged the lives of survivors of mental health challenges. For the sake of our individual and collective health, it is time to re-evaluate our mindset and make a collaborative and informed change.


 


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