Harvard Mental Health Letter

The spiritual side of recovery

Some tips for clinicians about how to support patients.

In some ways, spirituality and religion have together become the "third rail" of the mental health field: Clinicians may think these topics are so highly charged that they keep their distance and avoid talking with patients about their spiritual or religious beliefs.

Yet patients may feel quite differently, and might welcome an opportunity to talk. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has reported that 87% of Americans consider themselves to be religious, while 57% attend some type of worship service on a regular basis. Likewise, a Newsweek/Beliefnet poll found that 88% of Americans who responded described themselves as spiritual, religious, or both. Although there is no way to know how many respondents were struggling with their mental health, it is likely that many patients find that spiritual practices help them to cope, particularly if they are working hard to manage severe and ongoing problems such as addiction, unusual stress, or mental illness. Moreover, understanding a patient's spirituality may also provide helpful insights into that patient's value system or relationship to authority — which can be helpful to the clinician.

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