In the past couple of decades, an holistic approach to understanding individuals has paved the way for research to explore spirituality as one dimension of the cognitive, emotional, behavioural, interpersonal and psychological facets that make up a human being. Although a connection between spirituality and mental health has been recognised in Eastern ideologies (such as Buddhism) for many centuries, the historical split between religion and science in the West has resulted in a relatively recent interest in the field in the UK.
This interest in the relationship between spirituality and mental health is being explored in a number of ways. Researchers in a range of disciplines, including psychology, psychiatry, theology, nursing and gerontology, are exploring the connections between various elements of these two areas of human existence. Service users and survivors as well as those in various faith communities are also adding their voices to the evidence base and identifying the ways in which spirituality can contribute to mental health and well being, mental illness and recovery.
Swinton argues that spirituality is an intra, inter and trans-personal experience that is shaped and directed by the experiences of individuals and of the communities in which they live out their lives. In other words there are internal, group, community and transcendent elements to spirituality. Thus, its interaction with a person’s mental health is likely to be complex, interactive and dynamic. Although some research tends to look for a simple linear relationship between certain expressions of spirituality and narrowly-defined mental health outcomes, this report recognises the value of an integrated approach to understanding a person’s mental health and assumes that relationships between the two are likely to be bi-directional, interactive and open to influence from other factors.
Inevitably, though this report is limited by the nature of the research so far on spirituality and mental health. It therefore reflects to some extent the content and tone of a research base which is largely quantitative, largely related to the Christian religion, and almost entirely based on the assumption that what is at work is a mediating factor between spirituality and mental health rather than a direct spiritual phenomenon. As such the research tends to reduce spiritual experience to a set of behavioural or social indicators.