by Dean Hammer, UCS-Northshire Outpatient Clinician
From my perspective, there has been an important trend in the field of mental health care during the past twenty-five years: a growing interest in spiritually attuned counseling.
I have been closely tracking this trend given my masters studies in theology and my dissertation focus on Attending to the Spiritual Lives of Clients in Psychotherapy. I am delighted that the topic of the annual UCS conference was: “Spirituality in Clinical Practice” featuring John R. Peteet, M.D.
This trend to include a spiritual focus in psychotherapy is part of a larger movement to develop holistic care, which includes the attention to five dimensions of our lives:
- physical (our body),
- intellectual (our mind),
- emotional (our feelings),
- spiritual (our soul/spirit), and
- environment (our family, jobs, schools, community, etc.).
One of the core principles of holistic health care is that each of these five dimensions need to be healthy for a person to be healthy. The spiritual dimension is hard to define and has been greatly misunderstood.
It seems important to distinguish spirituality and religion. Much has been written about this topic. Religion can be understood as the institutions that have developed over the centuries with dogmas, rituals, and beliefs about the nature of the universe and the existence of God. Religious practices also have functioned to celebrate rites of passage; e.g., birth, baptism, bar mitzvah, marriage, death, etc.
For me, spirituality is a much broader concept, which includes peoples search into life’s meaning and purpose, the need for belonging and love, and our views about the future and hope. In this way, I believe that all people are spiritual because we all have to address in some way these basic questions about our existence. Some people address these questions by including a faith in God and others do not.
The dictionary provides multiple definitions for the word spirit. One of the definitions that is especially relevant to the work of counseling is: “a person’s feeling of cheerfulness or depression.” This points to the way that both spirituality and mental health include attention to our morale; i.e., our level of confidence that we can live good and fulfilling lives.
For me, a primary task of psychotherapy is to help clients overcome feelings of powerlessness and pessimism about their future. This entails the identification and mobilization of clients’ strengths as well as helping them to develop their sense of belonging to a social support network. I believe that one of the deepest human needs is to be loved and to have others who we can love. I also believe that we all need meaningful activity that we can do each day. These are some of the basic ingredients of spiritually oriented counseling.
During my twenty-five years of work in the field of counseling, I have felt a great privilege to encounter the spiritual lives of my clients. Some of my clients have been more receptive than others to directly address “spiritual issues.” However, my experience is that everyone who has made progress in treatment has made some advance in enhancing their sense of meaning, purpose, belonging, and/or hope. When I am able to witness a person developing their psychological and spiritual health, it is a kind of “poetry in motion.”
I feel very lucky and grateful to be able to work in this field of human services.