Attention needs to be paid to spiritual needs


The spiritual aspect of a patient’s life has a role to play on the road to recovery from illness, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

A LACK of respect, dignity, compassion and failure to look beyond the clinical condition is evident in nursing today, according to a senior lecturer in nursing who spoke at a conference in Dublin at the weekend.

“Healthcare services clearly consider the spiritual to be important in policies and practices, yet spiritual care is recognised when it is absent,” said Dr Linda Ross, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Health, Sport and Science at the University of Glamorgan in Wales who spoke on the theme of Spiritual Care: A Call Too Far in a Busy National Health Service?

Dr Ross said nurses played a crucial role in healthcare and they needed to have both clinical and interpersonal/ caring skills. “Nurses need to be hope-filled and remain fully present in the face of suffering,” she said.

People with mental health problems often want to talk about the spiritual aspects of their lives and this is one reason why there has been a huge growth of research into the effects of religious practice on health, according to various speakers at the conference on Mental Health, Practical Theology and Spirituality at All Hallows College, Drumcondra.

“Spirituality and psychiatry are addressing common issues and people with mental health problems need to talk about their beliefs, and psychiatrists need to facilitate this discussion even if they are non-believers,” said Prof Chris Cook, who is a psychiatrist and an Anglican priest and chairman of the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group in the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London.

Quoting psychiatrist Harold Koenig, Prof Cook said psychiatrists needed to take patients’ spiritual history, support healthy religious beliefs, challenge unhealthy ones and work closely with clergy when patients were part of a religious congregation.

“There are psychiatrists who find taking a spiritual history intrusive and that it shows a lack of respect for non-believers. But the current empowerment of service users who want to talk about the spiritual aspects of their lives is driving this debate,” he added.

According to Prof Cook, the majority of research has found that the practice of religion is associated with better health outcomes, but there are also some studies which point to the harmful effects of religious beliefs.

The inclusion of mindfulness as a therapy for depression, the use of the 12-step programme for alcoholics and compassion therapy are all evidence of the rise of spiritual approaches to dealing with mental health problems, according to Prof Cook, who is the director of the Project for Spirituality, Theology and Mental Health at Durham University in England.

Dr Michael O’Sullivan, head of Theological Studies at All Hallows College, Dublin City University, spoke about how a Catholicism based on fear and the belief that salvation is in the next life prevented some victims of sexual abuse from seeking help.

“Theologians and spirituality scholars need to scan their traditions and see what’s harmful and what kind of faith reinforces fear. Childhood is the most vulnerable time to being deceived by received traditions,” he said.

Another speaker at the conference, Prof Peter Gilbert, spoke about how although we need a secular framework in society, there was a huge impetus to bring back the spiritual dimension in mental health approaches. “We are fed up with the rational, reductionist, robotic approach to healthcare,” said Prof Gilbert, who is the project leader of the National Spirituality and Mental Health Forum in Britain.

Recovery from mental illness is essentially a recovery of spirit, according to Mike Watts, the founder of Grow, the self-help movement for people who suffer from mental illness.

“It’s a recovery of the spirit that responds to the encouragement and support of others and an ongoing pursuit of basic human goodness,” said Mr Watts, who is doing a PhD at Trinity College Dublin based on 25 personal stories of recovery from mental illness.