Tapestry53:52Putting the soul back into psychology

The word psyche originates from the Greek and Latin for soul or spirit. But any talk of the soul is mostly absent from modern-day psychology and psychiatry. 

David Rosmarin, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, wants to change that by bringing spirituality back into psychology and psychiatry. 

“Depression, anxiety, and other aspects of distress have been issues that people have been dealing with for eons,” Rosmarin told Tapestry. “Religion and spirituality have been the number one go to that people have used during the majority of human history, with the exception of the last 100 years with the advent of professional psychiatry and psychology.”

He says addressing a person’s spirituality can be an important part of addressing their humanity. 

“If we’re attached to something which is spiritual, we don’t need to be perfect all the time. We don’t get everything right 100 per cent of the time.”

Here is part of his conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

I don’t come across the words psychiatry and spirituality in the same sentence very often. Why is there this ‘never the twain shall meet’ vibe about this conversation?

It’s for historic reasons that make sense no longer. Sigmund Freud did away with spirituality and religion at the beginning of the 20th century, calling it a neurosis explicitly in many of his writings. And since then, people have called it any number of names similar: psychotic, delusional, personality disordered, dependent. That was basically the pervasive attitude of psychiatry towards spiritual and religious thinking through the first half of the 20th century.

What do you think gets lost when the patient or the client has spiritual beliefs and the therapist does not?

What’s interesting is that, according to my research, the therapist does not have to have religious or spiritual beliefs in order to provide for spirituality on the part of the patient. In fact, in a recent study that I did surprisingly, non-religious therapists were better at providing spiritually integrated psychotherapy than religious therapists.

Why do you think that is?

What it turned out, is that non-religious therapists who are providing spiritual psychotherapy seem particularly open-minded. And that dialectical, they’re able to keep multiple truths in mind. And that quality is extremely valuable when dealing with the complexities, especially in acute psychiatry, where I practice.

You’ve been blending spirituality and therapy through one program in particular; tell me about SPIRIT. What does that stand for?

SPIRIT is an acronym for Spiritual Psychotherapy for Inpatient Residential and Intensive Treatment. We had some divine inspiration on that day in the lab when we named it. 

And what goes on there? What do you do?

SPIRIT is a very simple clinical intervention, which provides scaffolding for clinicians who have probably, and usually, no training in how to address spiritual matters with patients, in what to do. So we give them a stem of a question that they ask, and the patients discuss it. And then there’s handouts which are provided to these patients, and they select from them aspects of spiritual and religious life, potentially, that they might wish to integrate into their treatment. That’s really the entirety of the clinical intervention. It’s very simple. 

What are you speaking to in the “souls” of these people, if I might use that expression?

Some of my colleagues have come to the conclusion, based on other data, that human beings have an innate spiritual drive, and actually do better on the whole when being linked in some way to that which is perceived to be sacred. I haven’t been bold enough to take this position, But some of my colleagues, and mentors like Dr. Lisa Miller at Columbia [University] has come out in spades about this. I guess according to her position, what we’re really doing is just giving individuals the opportunity to have an aspect of their humanity included in treatment that has previously been excluded and discriminated against.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that aspect of spirituality being something that can be part and parcel of someone’s humanity?

The way I think about it, if we’re attached to something, which is spiritual, we don’t need to be perfect all the time. We’re humans. We’re not perfect. We don’t get everything right 100 per cent of the time, and part of what happens when people have severe depression or anxiety, even psychosis, is that there’s a judgment of oneself. And there’s the sense that I’m lost and that I’ve done something wrong or I’m broken and I can’t be fixed. Spirituality in some ways, in its many different forms, and many different facets, opens up a different conversation around that. It’s more like, we’re not alone. And there is hope for the future. There’s meaning and purpose here.

In times of catastrophe … times of great human suffering, are more people drawn to religion as a kind of balm for the soul? Or do more people turn away saying, “No loving God could permit this?”

It’s kind of simple. That’s a scientific question. Jeanet Bentzen at University of Copenhagen, I believe, did a study in the early days of the pandemic, and it’s a fascinating study. What she looked at was Google searches for prayer, and Google searches for prayer internationally. She simply looked at the data, like, are people searching more for prayer? In the first three months of the pandemic [searches] were increasing substantially, like fivefold, internationally and in lockstep with the number of Covid infections stratified by country internationally. So that’s pretty clear evidence to me that people, at least, are looking for some sort of aspect of spirituality in response to uncertainty and threats.

What role do you think the soul plays in human flourishing?

Psychology, technically speaking, is defined as the study of the soul. The original Greek [meaning], I believe, is the study of the soul. The irony, right? The sheer irony that which we have ignored has come back to bite us, because it’s embedded in our name. I think issues of soul, issues of spirituality, issues of religion, again, are relevant to the majority of individuals on a phenomenological level. 

I do think that, historically speaking, there have been religious aggressions, and we cannot shy away from that aspect of history. Yes, there are religious wars. And yes, there are the clergy sexual abuse scandal comes to mind. But that, in many ways, I think shows the power of this domain to shape our behaviour and to shape our emotional experience in positive and negative ways. And I think it makes no sense not to study it at all.

Interview written and produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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