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Spirituality and mental health

Finding meaning and purpose in life.

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2014

Our overall health and well-being is made up of many things.

Our physical, psychological, emotional and social self all interconnect in complex ways to impact our health. Spirituality, as well, is becoming a more recognized part of health and well-being.

What is meant by the term spirituality, and how can it impact our health?

First of all, spirituality is a broad concept that lacks one definition, but has been described as a personal sense of meaning and purpose in life that is often linked to the sacred or a belief in something meaningful beyond oneself. In addition to a belief and emotional connection, spirituality is practised in various ways such as through communication with others, participation in community, self-expression and sometimes through prayer or religious affiliation.

While spirituality may be part of a person's religious practice, religion itself is often thought of as a more specific set of organized beliefs, practices, rituals and traditions designed to facilitate closeness to the sacred or higher power and most often shared with a group. Of course,  there are many religions practised in the world today and religious affiliation and practice continues to change over time.

How important is spirituality to Canadians these days?

Over 65 per cent of Canadians believe that spiritual values play an important role in their life, and over 90 per cent state that spiritual values help them to find meaning in life at least to some degree.

The link between spirituality and mental health remains somewhat of a mystery. A large number of studies have concluded that people who are more spiritually involved are healthier, practise healthier lifestyles and require fewer health services overall. There is also evidence to suggest that people who practise some form of spirituality experience specific benefits to their mental health and well-being, such as less depression, anxiety, substance use and abuse, as well as increased capacity to cope, improved self-esteem and quality of life. One of the main findings from the research is that people who practise some form of spirituality and have a sense of purpose in life are able to find meaning in their experiences, which facilitates resilience and coping with life challenges. Spirituality also has a role in reducing a person's sense of despair, particularly during illness or end of life. 
 
Some people identify the benefits of their spirituality with a sense of peace and understanding of their place in the world, and a sense of satisfaction in life that comes from a belief that they are contributing in positive ways.

Other health-promoting effects of spirituality include participation in a socially supportive group where people can receive support, validation, and encouragement. Studies point to the fact that people who practise some form of spirituality tend to have a strong and highly valued social support network,  which enhances emotional well-being and self-confidence. A supportive network of like-minded people can reduce isolation and contribute to a sense of hopefulness and optimism for the future. Meaningful relationships with others that are fulfilling are a key aspect of spirituality.

Because of the mounting evidence of the positive effects of spirituality on health and recovery and the interest of their patients, health professionals are now including spiritual health care into their training and practice. Physicians and other health-care providers believe that spirituality often helps patients cope with illness and can give patients a sense of hope in the face of their health struggles. Spiritual health care involves the recognition of spirituality as part of being human and supports a more holistic approach to achieving wellness.

Overall, spirituality appears to be related to a number of benefits to our mental well-being and our overall health, but how can this information be useful? What types of spiritual practices might enhance our well-being?

The way people embrace their spirituality varies with each individual, but could include prayer, rituals, traditions, reading, worship, retreats and periods of reflection.

Over 24 per cent of Canadians (2012) participate in religious services or activities at least once a week. Other ways that you can explore and strengthen your spiritual side might be to engage in self-expression through art or music, spending time in nature or caring for others through volunteering or acts of kindness. One of the significant benefits of spirituality is that it is available to anyone regardless of age, income or other circumstances.

Many people find that their spirituality shifts and changes over time, which sometimes results in becoming disconnected to their spiritual side. There are ways to strengthen your spiritual self and, in turn, have a positive effect on your overall well-being. Begin to take some time to think about what brings meaning and purpose to your life and see how it fits with where you are focusing your energy and time. Perhaps do some reading on spirituality or attend a lecture, discussion or service. Reflect on the kinds of things that help you to feel whole, healthy and fulfilled. Look for like-minded groups in your community and participate in organized activities. Tending to your spiritual self can bring many positives to your life and can help to foster a greater sense of holistic well-being.

Laurie McPherson is a program specialist in mental health promotion with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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