One of the key mediators between spirituality and mental health is the support that individuals derive from members, leaders and clergy of religious congregations. Spiritual or religious support can be a valuable source of self-esteem, information, companionship and practical help that enables people to cope with stress and negative life events. Such support can also exert its own main effects.
“Depression and substance misuse can sometimes reflect a spiritual void in a person’s life. As health professionals we need to be able to distinguish between a spiritual crisis and a mental illness as these can overlap,” said Dineo Makgasu, a nurse at Nkoyaphiri clinic.
She said over the years there has been increasing interest in treatments that have a spiritual dimension. In addition to established 12-step programmes for alcohol and substance misuse, new approaches such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for treatment of stress, anxiety and depression as well as spirit focused therapy are now being actively researched and supported.
“Spiritual practices can help us develop the better parts of ourselves. They can help us become more creative, patient, persistent, honest, kind, compassionate, wise, calm, hopeful and joyful. These are all part of the best health care,” Dikgasu said. She supports the school of thought that emotions encouraged in many spiritual traditions, including hope, contentment, love and forgiveness, may serve the individual by affecting the neural pathways that connect to the endocrine and immune systems.
“It should also be noted that people express their spirituality in many different ways. Spiritual beliefs can influence the decisions service users make about the treatment they receive or how they want to be supported. Taking the spiritual needs of service users into account supports their recovery and helps them live with their mental health problems in the best way for them as individuals,” said Dikgasu.
Brother James Thayo Zulu of the Roman Catholic Church in Gaborone said in his church there are priests or fathers who are gifted in healing. He said such practices normally happen at retreats away from the physical structure of the church. Such individuals, he said, are then sent for further studies to develop their gifts.
“But when it comes to healing people with symptoms such as those of mental illness, the priest consults first with medical professionals to find out what their diagnosis is,” said Zulu.
He said illnesses such as malaria commonly present symptoms similar to those of mental illness hence the need to get clarity from a doctor to avoid misdirected interventions. He believes everything begins in the mind and re-affirmed that his church is focused on raising generations with sound minds.
“We always stress the importance of baptising babies to our congregation. Baptism makes one a child of God, a follower of Christ,” said Zulu.
He explained that just by being baptised one automatically gets protected by the grace of God even without realising it. He added that as Catholic leaders it is upon them to protect people from a very young age.
“People who are not baptised are very vulnerable in that they can be possessed by the devil quite easily and this may show up in the physical realm as a mental illness,” Zulu said.