More than three out of four Americans identify with a religious faith, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. Faith and spirituality can be part of a person’s identity and can be a source of both comfort and turmoil for individuals. Yet this important aspect of people’s lives is often overlooked by health and mental health care providers.

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If a person with mental illness finds solace through their faith and spirituality, it should be integrated into his/her care. Losing this connection that helps a person understand physical and mental suffering could cause mental anguish and leave the person feeling isolated. This could contribute to further worsening mental health.

Here are a few suggestions about how to integrate faith and spiritualty into mental health treatment for yourself or a family member:

  1. Identify support: Identify members of your faith community that you respect and trust and consider involving them in your care.
  2. Inform your provider: If spirituality or faith is an important part of your life, tell your doctors, even if they don’t ask. They may be able to integrate this into your care.
  3. Explain specifics: Let your provider know about specific religious rites or practices you want. The more your providers know, the better they will be able to meet your needs.
  4. Speak up about conflicts: If you feel that some part of your treatment is in conflict with your personal beliefs, tell your doctor. Maybe the situation can be modified.

It is also important to understand that some symptoms of mental illness can relate to spirituality or religion. For example, a person expressing overwhelming guilt and embarrassment, like they are being “punished” for a past action, may be experiencing depression. Or a person may become overly preoccupied with religion, and family members may notice a change in behavior but not identify it as relating to psychiatric illness. In certain cultures, psychiatric illness is sometimes explained as a religious phenomenon, like being possessed, leading people to avoid psychiatric treatment altogether.

Some factors that can help distinguish expressions of spiritual beliefs from psychiatric illness:

  1. Is the behavior erratic or unusual for this person in the context or environment?
  2. Are the spiritual activities interfering with regular activities in a way they had not been before?
  3. Is there a drastic change in the way this person is expressing their feelings about their faith? Abandonment of or preoccupation with spiritual beliefs can be a sign of a problem.

Spirituality can be part of treatment and coping with mental illness in a variety of ways, such as mindfulness therapies and meditation, 12-step programs and bereavement and grief counseling.

If spirituality or religion are important to you or your family member, make it part of the discussion with your doctor or health care provider.

References

About the Author

Zahra Naqvi, M.D. – Resident psychiatrist, New York Presbyterian Hospital – Cornell

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