Mental Health: Search for a guiding light

Innovative approach: Julia Walsh at the East Glade Community Health Centre Exploring the links between faith, spirituality and mental health.
Innovative approach: Julia Walsh at the East Glade Community Health Centre Exploring the links between faith, spirituality and mental health.
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It’s mind, body and soul as far as mental health treatment is concerned in Sheffield. Rachael Clegg learns about the city’s radical spiritual approach to mental healthcare.

we THINK of spirituality as being the preserve of religion, and of health care at the mercy of doctors and medicine.

But, this month, Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust will introduce a novel approach to healthcare that fuses spirituality and conventional treatment.

A workshop has already run to establish stronger links with faith groups and other voluntary organisations in recognising how non-religious, Christian, Muslim and other patients use spirituality to aid recovery.

But, actually, Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust has been acknowledging spirituality in mental health treatment for almost six years, putting the city’s mental health services ahead of their counterparts. And, as far as some patients are concerned, it’s worked rather well.

Kate Steele, aged 37, from Charnock, swears by a spiritual approach to mental health treatment. Kate was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 17 years ago. The condition - previously called manic depression - produces mood swings from utter despair to sheer elation, which makes life difficult, stressful and confusing.

Kate worked as a police officer in her early twenties, a job she says exacerbated her anxieties.

“I started suffering from paranoia, hyper mania, psychosis and depression and in 1999 the police doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and I was hospitalised for four months,” she said.

“On my first night in hospital I fell to my knees and felt the need to pray, and suddenly a blanket of peace came over me. I always believed in something special but I never practised Christianity.”

But it was this, she says, that pulled her through.

“When I came out of hospital I started going to church. For many years I’d felt like I was going round in circles in my recovery as my faith and therapy were treated as two separate things – but now everything has fallen into place.”

Kate says spirituality has equipped her to deal with her mental health problems.

“It has given me the tools to deal with stuff that’s inside. It’s there all the time and I can use it 24/7 - it’s nice to be in a place where I have peace in my own skin.

“For me, the church and psychiatrists complement each other well - psychiatrists do not have all the answers, and vice versa.”

She’s not alone in her thinking. Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury argued spirituality should play a greater role in healthcare and even insisted the issue be debated in the House of Lords.

Dr John Sentamu said: “I am one of those who believe that human beings are psychosomatic spiritual entities.”

But when Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust refers to ‘spirituality’ it’s not about pinning down a particular religious doctrine, as Julia Walsh, the service’s transcultural team manager, explains.

“It’s not just about religion and belief, although that is very important to some people. It’s about what’s important to that person - it may be God, or it may be painting or listening to music.

“It’s the thing that gives them meaning and purpose.”

And while sceptics may quiver at the idea of spirituality playing a part in medicine, research shows that practising, or recognising, spirituality in mental health treatment has a significant impact on people on drug rehabilitation programmes.

It’s also shown to have a positive effect on people suffering from depression and experiencing feelings of isolation.

Julia, who also works as a social worker, said: “A person’s spirituality can guide their life and give them considerable resilience to face difficulties.

“We know mental health issues are very common, and as many as one in four people will suffer with mental illness at some point in their lives.

“Medication is only one component of a holistic approach to treatment. It is important in mental health care to understand the beliefs and values that underpin people’s experience of distress.”

The Department of Health now requires that NHS trusts consider a person’s religion of belief as part of their treatment.

Staff at Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust are keen to embrace this approach and accommodate people’s spiritual beliefs and preferences where possible.

“We can make provisions for spiritual practice around a person’s treatment,” says Julia. “So if someone needs to go to mosque, we will make sure they can.”

Julian Raffay, the Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust Team Leader for the Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care Department, said: “The trust recognises that spiritual care is an essential aspect of quality holistic care and we are working closely with service users and staff to assist in delivering a service that is felt to be genuinely welcoming and inclusive.”

As Kate puts it: “Life is a lot more beautiful now than it was before. I used to see nothing positive and would get depressed, but now I have a tool to call upon. It’s extremely empowering.”