Religion, spirituality and therapy

Does religion have a place in the therapy room? How can spirituality effect our mental health? Is there a difference between spirituality and religion? Whether you consider yourself spiritual or not, adhere to a set of religious principles, or are a steadfast atheist, these are important questions to consider if you are interested in mental health.

But why? I mean, society is becoming more and more secular. Some authors have even suggested that therapy was born out of society moving away from religious communities1. I have always considered myself an atheist and for most of my professional life have felt it redundant to tie mental health with anything spiritual or religious.

Something changed. I did not suddenly find God. I did however start listening more. Listening to my client’s and the people around me. Spirituality and religion played an important role in how some of these people identified who they were and how they lived. Their beliefs were, therefore, fundamental to their mental health. By understanding what their religion means to each individual we can have an insight into what their internal world looks like.

Spirituality and religion

These two words are often used interchangeably and can leave many wondering ‘aren’t they the same thing?’ The two are different and over the years, there has been a lot written and many debates about exactly what these differences are. Many people have their views as to which is better and it can be hard to find a non-biased definition of the two. A dictionary search2 yields these answers:

Religion:    a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

Spirituality: the search for meaning in life events and a yearning for connectedness to the universe.

In my own view, I see religion as defined as a set belief system, with certain rules that must be followed, and the worship of particular deity/deities. Whereas I see spirituality as a personal experience of something more than physical reality.

Faith for positive mental health  

There are many documented cases of people turning their life around with the help of religion. Many of these cases have become world famous through media coverage and biographical works. Organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous help those with alcohol addiction throughout a combination of talking and firm religious principles. Whether you are religious or not it is hard to ignore the potential for religion as a therapeutic tool.

Spirituality based practices, such as mindfulness, are becoming increasingly popular as both therapeutic techniques and as a life style choice. The evidence of both the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness is mounting up. The psychological benefits of mindfulness have led to the development of several new forms of therapy; mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are two popular examples of this.

Although there are arguments that religion is a bad thing, for both society and individual mental health. People often cite religious wars, terrorism and the abuse of young boys by catholic priests as examples of the evil of religion. I feel that the people in these incidents are at fault and not the religion itself. If religion were not there, these people would find something else to attach their extreme views and horrific acts to.

In conclusion, I believe the presence of religion and spirituality in the therapy room is highly appropriate. These beliefs can be at the centre of understanding what clients are going through and what might help them on the road to recover. I think it is important for therapist to view the person as a whole; encouraging not only emotional and psychological wellbeing but also physical and spiritual health.

 

  1. See An introduction to Counselling, McLeod, J. 2009. Open University press. P22-30.
  2. Dictionary definitions taken from http://www.dictionary.com.