24 Nov 2019

Positive spiritual well-being associated with better mental health outcomes

From Sunday Morning, 9:48 am on 24 November 2019

We're a mostly secular country with low rates of church attendance, so what do we believe in and how do we find meaning in times of major distress?

A symposium held at the University of Otago, Wellington this week offers a chance to tackle some of life's most fundamental questions, including the nature of reality and the meaning of life. Dr Richard Egan is one of the organisers, and says spirituality is crucial to those experiencing distress in their lives.

New Zealand charity Shakti has worked with about 300 cases of forced marriage. (File photo).

Photo: 123rf

Dr Egan tells Jim Mora that while spirituality has tended to be the realm of faith and theology, new research shows that it has significant benefits to health care and particularly end-of-life care and mental health.

“It’s inclusive across the theist to atheist spectrum, where each of us have our own understanding and experiences, but there are commonalities including ultimate meaning and purpose expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, cultures, etc.”

He says that while psychology and psychiatry can be rather godless in our secular country, many people consider themselves spiritual.

“For psychiatrists and psychologists, the best of them have always addressed this area, but it is largely the forgotten factor. A cynical focus often reduces a persons’ mental distress or experience to a psychical or cognitive dysfunction.

“Including spirituality in a clinic certainly doesn’t mean bringing God into it, rather it means opening up the opportunity – you’re making space to explore peoples’ spiritual needs, which we know are often central to mental distress. But this needs to be patient led and very carefully done.”

Dr Egan gives the example of the highly successful 12 Step Programme for addiction and recovery which invokes the “God of your understanding” as being very important.

“There are lots approaches. I would argue that for many there are spiritual issues underpinning addiction itself. Addiction is a symptom and yet we don’t deal with the causes of that addiction which are both individual and collective.

“The failure is what I call the bio-reductionist approach, which is basically focusing on the mechanical and psychical aspects of mental health, and of course, funding and staff numbers - but there’s a continuum of spiritual belief, so a developed humanist spirituality can certainly give people meaning and purpose in their lives. It just isn’t assessed or addressed enough.”

Dr Egan says spirituality has started to be taught within clinical medicine in the last couple of years at Otago.

“We actually talk about ways these young doctors can actually open up the conversation about spirituality, spiritual needs, spiritual care – always in an ethical way within their own competency, and importantly, knowing when to refer on.”

He says that spirituality certainly doesn’t make up the entire solution, but it’s a large part of it.

“Having a reason to live, a reason to get up in the morning, a sense of meaning, of being connected to the seen or unseen – spirituality explores questions of ‘who am I, who are we, why are we here, how can we contribute and live well’.”