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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Spiritual care: balancing science and faith

What is the right balance between science and faith when it comes to helping a client recover from mental illness? Are spiritual needs adequately addressed when we provide care? Are faith leaders in the community playing the right role?

In part 3 of our Spiritual Care series, we meet three CAMH experts in clinical care, research and ethics. Here are their perspectives on the sometimes delicate balance between science and faith.

Dr. Peter Voore
“Growing depth and diversity:” Dr. Peter Voore, Medical Director, Ambulatory Care and Structured Treatments.

How are spiritual elements integrated into clinical practice?

We’ve seen the evolution of mindfulness as a valuable tool to help clients with anxiety and mood disorders. Mindfulness helps a client live in the moment, be aware of their body and manage thoughts and feelings. This therapeutic tool has its roots in eastern religion. Scientifically, we can see the positive impacts on the brain, and on client outcomes. It’s a great example of how spirituality can be adapted into clinical practice.

What’s your experience addressing spirituality with clients?

There are times when I’ve sought a new dimension for a client, for example, reaching out to a client’s pastor. A client of mine who had chronic depression discussed her suicidal thoughts with her pastor and found this discussion very comforting, and a helpful addition to the psychotherapy she was doing with me. I’ve also had times where it’s important to have a client’s faith leader on board when it comes to supporting medication compliance.

How has CAMH evolved to balance science and faith?

Earlier in my career, the spirituality options for clients were limited – there was a weekly service on site, mostly based on Christian faith.  We’ve seen a growth in the depth and diversity of options for clients when it comes to spirituality.  Another good example is spiritual ceremonies offered through Aboriginal Services. The CAMH Spiritual Care team now offers diverse services to clients. I think we can go further to integrate spiritual supports to clients in psychiatric treatment, to take a more formal approach to this issue during the client assessment phase. CAMH Spiritual Services is working on that initiative. I believe that will benefit clients in future.

Gursharan Virdee
Religion and faith “can be integral:” Gursharan Virdee, Research Analyst, Schizophrenia Division, Complex Mental Illness Program

You are working on a study looking at the meaning of faith and community for more than 30 clients with psychosis. What trends have emerged?

One important theme is how religion and spirituality act as a source of community for clients. Many clients find a deep sense of peace in a faith setting such as a mosque or church. Religion and faith can promote inclusion and enhance a client’s sense of self. Another relates to the role of faith leaders in the community. We found that they could play a key role to boost a client’s sense of inclusion, both social and psychological.

What are the pain points when it comes to integrating mental health care and spirituality?

The risk is we can undermine the significance of religion and spirituality in treating a patient. Research has shown that mental health clinicians may be uncomfortable in discussing spirituality with a client. Clinicians may be less likely to belong to a faith group than their client population.  But for some clients, religion or faith may be integral to how they understand their health.

What are some solutions to the issues you’ve raised?

When it comes to mainstream mental health services, we can go further to incorporate religion and spirituality into a client’s care when appropriate – for example, providing a pass for the client to attend a faith service. It comes down to the issue of client choice and finding the best route for the client. At a community level, there are opportunities for mental health providers to engage with faith communities so that clients are supported in a more holistic way. Faith leaders may need better education on mental health. Connecting both of these worlds can enhance recovery and healing for our clients.

Kevin Reel
“Discovering what we believe ourselves to be:” Kevin Reel, CAMH Ethicist and Interim Discipline Co-Chief for Occupational Therapy.

Science versus spirituality: Where do you see the common ground and conflict?

Neither science nor spirituality can hold or find all the 'answers' to the human condition, so we'd do well to try to appreciate the merits of each, and the limitations. I have always felt the aims are similar: seeking to better the world, albeit through different means.  Conflict can arise when respect is absent. 

As an ethicist, you said that what gets upset in a moral dilemma is a person's spiritual core.

The challenging thing is that many of us struggle to uphold our values at all times. Stress, fatigue, the unexpected: all of these things can cause us to act in ways that might not be in keeping with 'who' we think we are.  When this happens, we feel moral distress, which is akin to spiritual distress. An example is a client who is struggling with addiction. Deep inside, they may feel this is not part of who they feel themselves to be. But making this change is immensely difficult. We can work with them to help align their values/spirit with their behaviour.

Your background is in Occupational Therapy. How does spirituality fit into the OT practice?

The Canadian Model of Occupational Performance and Engagement describes client dimensions including physical, cognitive, affective and spiritual. The spiritual dimension is placed at the centre. There was much debate about this, but it was felt to be appropriate. We ask the client to help us understand what spirituality means to them. We then work with this essential part of them.

Spiritual Care at CAMH
This is part three of a series dedicated to CAMH Communications Specialist Joan Chang, a talented and passionate communicator who appreciated the value of spiritual care. Joan developed a story framework to shine the spotlight on spiritual care at CAMH, and completed some interviews for the series. She died suddenly in June, 2015. A
tribute to Joan is included on the CAMH Foundation website. 

Joan Chang

Also in the Spiritual Care Series:

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