Bringing Spirituality and Mental Health Care Together

October 25, 2021
IONS Senior Fellow Cassandra Vieten, PhD

It is not unusual for a person who seeks treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD or other psychological conditions to undergo an entire course of treatment without once being asked about their spiritual and religious background, beliefs, and practices (SRBBPs). Polls of the American public indicate that religion and spirituality are important in most people’s lives, and hundreds of studies demonstrate empirical links between religion/spirituality and psychological health and well-being. SRBBPs are associated with:

  1. lower rates of mental, medical, and substance abuse problems;
  2. better recovery from mental disorders, substance abuse, illnesses, and surgery;
  3. less depression and anxiety (Oman, 2018); as well as lower levels of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and completed suicides (Lawrence, Oquendo, & Stanley, 2016).

In a recent survey of 2,050 individuals receiving mental health services and their family members, 80% agreed or strongly agreed that spirituality was important to their mental health (Yamada, Lukoff, Lim, & Mancuso, 2019). Another recent nationwide survey of 989 mental health care clients showed that 64.9% agreed that engaging in SRBBPs “improves my mental health,” and 64% viewed their spirituality/religion as relevant to their mental health (Oxhandler, Pargament, Pearce, Vieten, & Wong, in press). Religion and spirituality are also meaningful aspects of cultural diversity, and like other forms of multicultural diversity, when not addressed can result in inadequate or insensitive care and increase barriers to care. Most mental health professionals are unaware of this robust body of scientific evidence supporting the importance of spirituality/religion in mental health, and the powerful influence of religion/spirituality diversity.

Work at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and our collaborators over the last decade led to the development of specific empirically-based spiritual and religious competencies (or, the attitudes, knowledge, and skills mental health professionals need to address these areas ethically and effectively), outlined in our 2016 book Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice: Guidelines for Psychologists and Mental Health Professionals, with our publishing partner New Harbinger Publications. Examples include basic skills such as asking about clients’ SRBBPs early in treatment, identifying spirituality/religion strengths or struggles, respecting the spirituality/religion beliefs of clients (including atheism or agnosticism), and mental health professionals being aware of their own biases about spirituality/religion and how they might influence clinical care.

A recent article by me and David Lukoff in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, reviews the evidence and makes recommendations for how basic spiritual and religious competencies can be implemented. David is a former professor and supervisor of mine, along with being co-author of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSMV) category for “Religious and Spiritual Problem,” which made it less likely that patients undergoing “spiritual emergencies” would be pathologized, over-medicated, or inappropriately institutionalized. David and I have also co-founded the Spiritual Competency Academy (SCA), which offers over 30 courses completely free, and professionals requiring CEs for licensure are quizzed and pay a nominal fee.

It is time for mental health professionals across the board to be trained to routinely inquire about their clients’ and patients’ spirituality and religion, and to include any spirituality/religion concerns/struggles or strengths/resources into their treatment plan. A recent $5.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to myself and a group of my colleagues is a powerful investment in making this fundamental change in the training of mental health professionals. The Spiritual and Religious Competencies Project (SRCP) spans across six universities and will:

  1. fund professors who teach in mental health professional graduate programs to test spiritual competency curricula,
  2. fund people involved in practicum, internship or other mental health professional training programs to develop and test ways to train professionals in early practice,
  3. survey graduate program faculty about the best ways to include spirituality/religion competencies into the curriculum, and
  4. engage in an overarching systems change effort to pull the levers needed across stakeholders to make this training ubiquitous.

If you work in a setting in delivering coursework or training to developing mental health professionals, you may be eligible to apply for a grant. See our website for more information.

As it often does, IONS led the way in this effort similar to their work in the fields of mind-body medicine, meditation research, and positive psychology. The work we are doing, in large part, rests upon the foundational work completed at IONS, supported by our members and donors. Bridging between science and spirituality is not only possible, but necessary for making healthcare more complete and effective, and supporting people in their journeys toward wholeness.

About the Author

Cassandra Vieten, PhDCassandra Vieten, PhD, is Executive Director of the John W. Brick Foundation, Scholar-in-Residence at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego, and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, where she worked for 18 years in successive roles as Scientist, Director of Research, CEO, and President from 2013-2019. She is a psychologist, mind-body medicine researcher, author of numerous articles in scientific journals, and an internationally recognized keynote speaker.

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