DAILY / MAY 5, 2018  
Psychiatric News Update

Faith Can Shape How Some Patients Experience Mental Illness

Woman in church
As psychiatry moves toward better biological understanding of mental illness, the role of spiritual, unconventional experiences may be overlooked or medicalized, according to Professor John Swinton, Ph.D., chair of the lecture, “A Matter of Faith? The Role of Faith in the Experiences of Christians Living With Severe Mental Health Challenges,” held today at APA’s Annual Meeting. More attention to theological beliefs and religious communities might aid in understanding and responding to mental illness, said Swinton, chair of divinity and religious studies at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Swinton, who also serves as an honorary professor of nursing at the university, presented ongoing phenomenological research that explores the spiritual lives of Christians living with severe mental illnesses, including psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder, and major depression. He has found that religion can reframe standard accounts of how these conditions are experienced and what kinds of responses might be considered authentic and spiritually healing.

Faith or spirituality is an aspect of humanity that inspires meaning, purpose, and hope to many people with mental health challenges, he noted, and can offer fresh descriptions and new possibilities as vital complementary dimensions to the psychiatric task of soul healing.

Psychiatry is largely influenced by the DSM manual, which uses sets of people’s experiences to develop categories and diagnoses for the basis of psychiatric intervention; however, a medical diagnosis is only one description of an individual, among others, he said. Although the DSM shapes the vision of psychiatrists in important ways, it leaves some unanswered questions, he said. “The DSM doesn’t ask about what these experiences mean to the individuals. What does it mean to hear voices? What are the positives of such experiences? What does it mean to be so depressed that you can no longer experience your connection to God? What does it mean to have religious delusions, that is, your most meaningful spiritual experiences emerge only when others consider you to be unwell? Is it possible to respect such experiences without pathologizing spirituality?”

Not often considered is the idea that medication can play a spiritual role in people’s lives. “In the same way pain can block our access to God, self, and others, so can some of the more negative experiences people encounter in a mental health context,” he said. “Giving the correct medication becomes a spiritual practice when it enables a person to reconnect with others. It acts in the opposite direction if medication blocks a person’s spirituality. Spiritual care does not require learning a new set of competencies. It has more to do with recognizing the spiritual in our day-to-day practices.”

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