Individual spirituality, faith communities and religious practices can help or hinder a person’s recovery from mental illnesses and traumatic experiences. Traditionally, mental health systems and systems partners have discouraged discussion about individual spirituality, faith communities and religious practices to the detriment of individuals who benefit from engaging in spiritual, faith and religious expression. Mental health culture is just beginning to recognize the tremendous contribution these unique resources can have in one’s wellness and resilience. Understanding that different words mean different things to different people, let us have a clear definition of each of these words—spirituality, faith and religion—in the context of mental health recovery.
Spirituality, within both mental health and addiction recovery systems, is extremely personal and distinctly different than a faith community or religious system. Spirituality is about what matters most to an individual. What will so powerfully motivate you to do something you would not otherwise do because it is intertwined with your identity? Family relationships, work experiences and artistic passions are all examples of spirituality because spirituality is defined as what brings meaning and purpose to one’s life. It is critically important that mental health communities provide opportunity for spiritual inclusion of all persons – – with or without identifying a divine higher power because spirituality, like recovery, is a self-directed journey.
Faith communities operate as natural supports for individuals who share a common belief and understanding about Divine Power. When I was employed as a Recovery Support Specialist (aka peer specialist) at a community hospital which had a psychiatric unit, I consistently observed pain experienced from persons who were failed by their faith communities. These are persons who desired to draw close to a faith family. Occasionally, someone would share with me how shamed they felt when someone attempted to cast out a demon. More frequently, however, I would witness individuals who were profoundly hurt when not visited by clergy members; knowing full well that that clergy would visit them had they been hospitalized on any unit other than the psychiatric unit. Thankfully this is not everyone’s experience and there is a noticeable positive shift in attitudes.
The Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities just published Recovering Liberty, their monthly newsletter and it is filled with resources from and for faith communities. In particular, their research on Developing Welcoming Faith Communities noted Pathways to Promise and the Companionship Model, as well as many of our member efforts. While this is a rather lengthy paragraph, I would be remiss to not point out that many individuals with psychiatric conditions have lost ties with their family, making the faith family a primary source of love and connection.
AJ French (CRSS) has personal and professional expertise regarding mental health recovery. She developed Certified Recovery Support Specialist (CRSS) trainings for faith communities and justice populations. She also partnered as a trainer with the Illinois Division of Mental Health for the CRSS Values & Ethics Training.