Spirituality in Mental Health and Chronic Disease
by Scott Shannon, MD, ABIHM
(American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine)
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.