Spirituality in mental health

Posted in Blog General Health Health guidelines History of medicine Lifestyle Spirituality in medicine

by Scott Shannon, MD, ABIHM

Conventional health care has ignored spirituality for far too long. Integrative medicine acknowledges the crucial importance of our spiritual beliefs and the dramatic influence they exert in our health and well-being. The foundation of holistic medicine and it’s newer cousin, integrative medicine, builds on the concept of interconnected body-mind-spirit. What this means is that our body, our mind and our spirit are indivisible and inter connected. Conventional health care suffers because it wrongly assumes that one can provide comprehensive health care to the body without recognition given to the influence of mind and spirit. Likewise, modern psychiatry has become increasingly ineffective and narrow by ignoring the power of spirit to steer our mental health-in both positive and negative directions.

I will provide some definitions before I explore the benefits of an active spiritual path. The term spirituality covers the innate drive that we share to explore our connection to something greater that us. This often involves a search for meaning in our life. Spirituality typically includes a sense of connection to others, nature and a higher power. This can be contrasted with religion. Religions are human institutions that incorporate a formal path to explore spirituality and worship a higher power. Religions generally carry formal philosophy, guidelines and dogma-set belief systems. Religion also includes community, charity and rituals.

Think of religion and spirituality as two different overlapping circles. For most people there is an almost complete overlap between the two. Some individuals explore their spiritual path without a formal religion. It is personal, unique and active. Others find solace in the institution of religion without ever really exploring their personal beliefs or meaning. Two different terms. Everyone has an innate spirituality that carries power and value if explored. Some people embrace a religion.

Research highlights the power of the human spirit to improve our health. When surveyed, 96% of Family Practitioners agree that spiritual well-being is a factor in health. One study of 5,000 adults over 28 years found that religious engagement reduced their mortality by 23% even when adjusted for social connections, education, age, baseline health status and health practices. One massive meta-analysis of nearly 126,000 people involved in 42 studies found that highly religious individuals had a 29% higher odds of survival when compared to less religious folks. It even helps in our job satisfaction-physicians with an active spiritual life are 25% happier in their work. Your odds of surviving open-heart surgery are significantly elevated if you have an active spiritual path. Clearly, our science supports the health value of an active spiritual and religious life.

Chronic illnesses are not easy to live with. They can create suffering that challenges our view of the world and a higher power. In my experience, the longer that a person has suffered from a chronic illness (especially pain, depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder) the more that spiritual issues become central. As healers we must recognize this distress and address it. The evolving science of resiliency tells us that much of this suffering can be overcome by a positive belief system that emphasizes a positive mental attitude and a sense of purpose among other things. Viktor Frankl, the father of existential therapy and a concentration camp survivor, captures the profound power of this in his landmark classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. All of this material points to the crucial importance of our beliefs and how we find meaning in our lives. This is the essence of our spiritual task: find meaning and purpose that can sustain and propel in a life worthy of celebration.

Recently, I gave a talk on spirituality in health care at the second Colorado Integrative Medicine Conference is Estes Park-July 15th to 17th. It covers many of these topics in greater depth. (A link to that talk will soon be available at www.wholeness.com). I gave this particular talk in the place of my good friend Lee Lipsenthal, MD. He has suffered a debilitating recurrence of esophageal cancer. The very circumstances of this presentation challenged me to find deeper meaning in this painful event. All of life’s events can carry this same implication: our spiritual path may be the most crucial element of our long-term health as we face life’s big questions.

The views expressed in the ABIHM Blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the ABIHM or its Directors.


  1. Les Garson
    August 9, 2011 · 9:56 am | Permalink

    having attended the 2010 Integrative Holistic Medical conference in San Diego I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Lipsenthal give a powerfully evocative talk on his personal journey dealing with his dx of Esophageal ca. To say the least, it was an affirmation of the Integrative approach to healthcare, not to mention , a simply amazing presentation. I am deeply saddened to hear of Dr. Lipenthals recurrence– I wish him the best and send as much good karma as is humanly possible his way.
    Les Garson M.D.

  2. Harriet Cooke MD
    March 8, 2012 · 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I appreciated the article and definitions. Two things to add. First, a great book I found years ago by Jeff Levine, God, Faith, and Health. He is a social epidemiologist and the book is filled with the myriad of ways spirituality and religion inform our health. Very well organized! Second, I wanted to clarify the often misunderstood religion of Judaism, as it is NOT a set of beliefs or dogmas, but rather it is founded on debate and continual change. This process encourages personal empowerment, which is a vital factor in optimal health. Judaism is, however, heavy into rituals to sanctify life. These are opportunities to remember the spirituality inherent in all aspects of our life and our integration with nature and the changing rhythms of the day, the year, and our lives. Whether we choose shared community rituals, or develop our own, creating a regular practice to reconnect with our spirituality throughout our day and year is a vital contributing component to health. The value of community, likewise, cannot be understated. Depending on the integrity and values of the community, of course.

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