Spirituality and mental health: Looking for the link

30 August 2013 Medill
Spirituality and mental health: Looking for the link

After his son committed suicide, Chicago attorney Steve Moore began volunteering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and became a facilitator for a survivor support group, Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide.

“It gives hope (facilitating the support group) in the sense of living with having lost someone,” Moore said.

Creative Commons Many different religions can relate to the connection between spirituality and healing.
Creative Commons
Many different religions can relate to the connection between spirituality and healing.

Suicidologist Kal Kaplan has written extensively about suicide, as well as the psychology of hope.

“There are some people who look at suicide as a way out,” Kaplan said. “It’s not so much as what happens to you; it’s how you interpret what happens to you. The whole idea of having a positive view towards life is more important in a way than saying suicide is bad.”

Kaplan has written extensively about spiritual narratives as a form of suicide prevention.

“What is it about the biblical narrative that offered such a philosophy on suicide that gave people hope and resiliency…a sense of overcoming bad beginnings?” Kaplan asks. “Life was not doomed.”

It’s this idea of hope, manifested through a belief in a higher power, that investigators at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital found to be associated with improved treatment outcomes in psychiatric care.

McLean is the same psychiatric hospital where mathematician John Nash (featured in the book and movie “A Beautiful Mind”) was first admitted and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia –

The investigators conducted a study – released this spring – that looked at 150 patients and gauged their belief in God as well as their expectations for treatment outcome and emotion regulation over a one-year period.

Of those sampled, more than 30 percent claimed no specific religious affiliation yet still saw increased benefits in treatment if they rated their belief in a higher power as moderately or very high. Patients with “no” or only “slight” belief in God were twice as likely not to respond to treatment than patients with higher levels of belief.

C.G. Jungian therapist Amy Champeau said she has always viewed her work as a spiritual process.

“I call it a practice because you go there and you do the best you can,” Champeau said.

Champeau often sits on a yoga ball during therapy sessions because it helps her get to a better place – both in terms of spirituality and comfort ability – to tune into the specific needs of clients.

While Champeau doesn’t necessarily discuss spirituality in her practice, it is an important part of it.

“Thinking about spirituality, I don’t encourage any particular religious association, but it’s more of an idea of how are we connected with something larger than ourselves? How do we be come inspirited in our selves? How do we live?” Champeau said.

“The Jungian view is a self with a capital “S,” how an individual is part of something much greater, not just outside oneself but inside, no separation between the two and when we enter into that space we move beyond our ego, the part of us that feels like it needs to have control over things.”
Wholeness is a key concept for Champeau.

“Bringing spirituality into mental health, looking towards what’s whole and not so much about moving into what’s small. I think that now recently I’ve begun to have people pay attention to what’s going on in their body as a way to tune into what’s true for them,” Champeau said. “Most of us live from the head up and we forget the rest of ourselves.”

To Champeau, being a whole person means letting go and releasing pain.

“I think that when people come to therapy I think that at some level they want to let go of something,” Champeau said. “Pain is a good teacher and it makes people grow and search and have some willingness and openness to doing something different. People are drawn to spirituality through pain.”

An openness to something different – such as using the creative project of painting as a vehicle of release – is something she is exploring.

“I don’t see a whole lot of difference in myself between creativity and spirituality. I think those are two things that are very closely connected,” Champeau said. “I think creativity has to do with the energy of creation and when I teach my classes, I tell people that creativity has nothing to do with talent. It’s our birthright of humans to be creative.”

She plans to eventually incorporate a painting program that she teaches – Point Zero Intuitive Painting Process – into her practice to help people move into this space she speaks of.

“There’s a lot of flow there. I learned that when you paint, how you’re feeling at that particular moment, it comes through, through the color and onto the paper,” Champeau said. “It doesn’t mean that if you’re sad you have a painting of a sad person. It’s a very powerful process, similar to meditation in a way expect it’s kind of more immediate because you see a reaction to what you’re feeling at a particular time.”

Champeau emphasized that it’s an organic, childlike process.

“When you think about spring and the ground and energy shooting up through it through a plant and into a flower…that’s the same energy we’re tapping into when we stand in front of a canvas and pick up a paint and let our energy flow through that,” Champeau said.

Spiritual beliefs about healing and suicide vary diversely across religions but there seems to be a  consensus among therapists of different religious backgrounds that spirituality and healing are closely related.

Rabbi and therapist David Oler, whose practice is in Deerfield, said he sees two kinds of religion: comfort seeking and transformational. While first seems to emphasize dependency, the second emphasizes human growth and development, he said.

And it’s transformational religion, Oler said, that is in sync with psychotherapy.

“I think people’s sense that they can grow and become stronger and become more confident and more effective and more whole – that sense gives them hope and often people are depressed because they don’t have a sense of hope,” Oler said.

When writing his dissertation – which was titled  “Attachment Style, Parental Care Giving, and Perceived Image of God” – Oler explored the importance of relationships in one’s life and therapeutic journey.

“I think that it’s relationships or a relationship with a parent, with a lover or spouse, or a relationship with a therapist or close friend – if they help a person feel that things can get better, that’s uplifting and hope inspiring and helps a person move away from the depth of their depression and feel more confident going forward,” Oler said.

And also, it’s not as simple as saying “I have faith and therefore I have hope and therefore I’m all set,” he said. “People in my practice are all over the map in terms of their level of faith,” Oler said.
How people see good – their perceived image of God, as Oler calls it – also affects how they perceive their faith.

“Do people see God as judgmental and wrathful or loving and affirming, benevolent, towards them?” Oler asks.

Regardless of faith or a lack thereof, Oler hopes to help people get rid of negative assumptions in their lives.

“I try to help people recognize where they’re jumping to conclusions and also delve into why it is they’re making those assumptions,” Oler said. “What is it that causes them to have that mindset and world view in relationship to other people?”

Eva Ponder, clinical director of Chicago Cornerstone Counseling Center, said that while the organization’s focus is on Christian spirituality, many referrals come from different religions and some from people without a faith basis at all.

“We’re very client centered. The degree to which we’re doing that depends on what the client is bringing in the door,” Ponder said. “Some have no desire incorporating spirituality into treatment; we respect that and meet the clients where they are.”

Ponder said that all therapists are trained to respond to clinical and spiritual needs and to also help people know when it’s more appropriate for them to seek pastoral help instead of psychological help.

“Sometimes clients can use their spirituality as a protection against really looking at themselves, as more of a rigid religiosity that is used maybe to focus on other people as opposed to really looking at themselves,” Ponder said. “In those cases we might try to help the person to become more flexible in their thought pattern, there’s just really a wide range.”

Ponder said she thinks motivation is key when it comes to connecting faith to recovery.

“I think that when we have clients who come in that are motivated to incorporate spirituality into treatment it’s a huge extra resource to them getting better,” Ponder said.

Cathedral Counseling Center Therapist David Wick sees the question of which comes first, faith or the path to recovery, as similar to the chicken or the egg question.

“Each person might describe what faith means to them differently at different point in their life,” said Wick.

“But it does seem to be all about relationships, whether it’s your relationship with others, God or a therapist.”

His practice is with the center’s downtown clinic at 50 E. Washington Ave. The center, a member agency of The Episcopal Charities and Community Services, has locations in churches in Evanston and Hyde Park as well.

For Wick, spirituality and mental health bring up a key question.

“So many people believe in God, but our psychiatric situation isn’t exactly ideal. So how do you fit those together?”

Wick thinks many more questions need to be asked.

Cathedral Counseling Center Therapist Nina Riccardi, on the other hand, said she has no doubts that faith has helped her clients recover.

“Truthfully, for some of my most disturbed, distressed, confused, impaired people, a belief in a higher power has made an enormous difference to them,” Riccardi said.

“The saddest client I ever had was a man who did not want to go on medicine. I never knew what helped him other than his belief; something gives him this slow and steady energy to move through things.”

Riccardi said that the fact that clients are coming to treatment shows a sense of open-mindedness.

“You’re taking a chance when you tell your story to someone,” Riccardi said.

Riccardi also works with atheist clients, and said one of these clients found that her dog helped provide a sense of peace for her.

And while some may simply choose not to practice the customs of a particular faith affiliation, others want to get away from a certain faith system.

“Sometimes the overreaching arm of faith is something that people come to treatment to get away from,” Riccardi said. “I would never recommend someone to go to church if they’re depressed but I would ask someone always how they make meaning of their life, is there a faith that you follow, where does this make sense in your life.”

For Chicago family therapist Karen Kalleil, listing her religious affiliation of Islam online is more for the comfort of her potential clients, not her.

“I’m not a strictly religious person but I understand that for some people it’s important to have a cultural perspective,” Kalleil said.

However, she does feel that her own faith has helped her to deal with the issues that clients bring to her.

“One of the first rules of being a therapist is to meet your client where they are,” Kalleil said. “If they come in and have a spiritual bed, I can certainly understand the need for them to connect with a higher power.”

Kalleil said that not all of her clients are Muslim or associate themselves with Islam, and many don’t want to talk about their specific faith bed in the context of therapy.

“Most people want to talk about how to get better, whether that’s through prayer or meditation or just getting outside and feeling a sense of the universe around them,” Kalleil said. “If they have a religious bed, whatever that is – Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism – I really encourage them to lean on their faith.”

Kalleil said that she definitely sees a link between spirituality and healing.

“I feel that people who don’t have that bed have a much harder time with therapy,” Kalleil said.

Kalleil remembers one time a Christian client came to her, struggling with spiritual issues. Kalleil then consulted with a Christian colleague to draw upon biblical scriptures she could point her client to, while also encouraging her to speak with her priest.

“I would never tell anyone that what they believe is wrong whether or not I buy into it,” Kalleil said.