Troubled Souls: Spirituality as a Mental Health Hazard


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Claims that “spirituality” is beneficial for mental health (see this article(link is external) for example) have been criticised on the grounds that definitions of spirituality have been broadened so much that they imply mental health by definition (Koenig, 2008). Spirituality traditionally had a narrow definition centred on belief in supernatural spirits such as God. However, mental health services  have become increasingly interested in addressing the “spiritual” needs of consumers in recent times, and as a result attempts have been made to redefine the term in a way that would be maximally inclusive, so as to apply to people from diverse religious backgrounds and to those with no religion (Koenig, 2008). Many studies have broadened the term to incorporate a wide range of positive psychological concepts, such as purpose in life, hopefulness, social connectedness, peacefulness and well-being in general. This becomes problematic for research attempting to assess the relationship between “spirituality” and mental health because by most definitions good mental health implies that a person has some purpose in life, is hopeful, socially connected and has peace and well-being. Thus it becomes a meaningless tautology to say that spirituality is associated with better mental health when the term is defined this way (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007).

A recent British study looked at the relationship between spirituality and mental health using a more traditional understanding of the term to avoid this problem of tautology (King et al., 2013). The study involved in-depth interviews with over 7000 people in England. Participants were sorted into those whose understanding of life was predominantly religious, spiritual, or neither. These terms were explained in the following way:

‘By religion, we mean the actual practice of a faith, e.g. going to a temple, mosque, church or synagogue. Some people do not follow a religion but do have spiritual beliefs or experiences. Some people make sense of their lives without any religious or spiritual belief.’

Participants were also interviewed in depth about their mental health, alcohol and drug use, social support, use of psychotropic medication, gambling, and were asked about their overall happiness.

The results showed that religious participants were similar to non-religious/non-spiritual ones in regards to their mental health in most respects, although the religious were less likely to have used or been dependent on drugs in the last year. However, there were striking differences for those in the spiritual but not religious category. Compared to people who were in the neither category, spiritual but not religious people were more likely to take psychotropic medication, to use or be dependent on recreational drugs, to have a generalised anxiety disorder, phobia, or any neurotic disorder, or to have abnormal eating attitudes. These differences still held even when taking into account social support and physical health, as well as age, sex, and ethnicity. None of the groups differed in their overall happiness though.

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