Stigma, Spirituality, and Mental Health

All too often, spirituality and mental health are seen as occupying different worlds. Given this long-standing division, people with mental health conditions can experience a form of “double stigma.”

On one hand, people may feel uncomfortable participating in faith-based or spiritual communities, due to the stigma that often exists within those communities. For example, some spiritual retreat applications ask about participants’ mental health history, and may refuse access to those who answer honestly. Or, faith leaders may feel uncomfortable discussing mental health matters with their congregants, preferring instead to refer to mental health services.

On the other hand, mental health providers may dismiss or pathologize clients’ spiritual or religious beliefs as symptoms of illness. There is also fear in public mental health treatment settings that the inclusion of spiritually-based practices may violate separation of church and state, or may alienate clients. Yet according to a survey conducted by the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative, 48% of respondents identified as “spiritual but not religious,” and 80% of respondents supported the integration of spirituality into mental health services.

There are signs that this separation between mental health care and spirituality may be decreasing. The Spiritual Strategies for Psychosocial Recovery program, a collaboration between the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) and the University of Southern California, uses spirituality as a therapeutic tool to teach practical coping skills. A study of the program found that participants reported a greater sense of empowerment and control over their moods and symptoms. As noted in a USC News profile of the program, “the success of the program suggests that health care providers and spiritual leaders could work together to address the needs of their communities.”

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