Psychologists shouldn’t ignore the soul

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David Rosmarin, director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., wrote an important opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal about the need for the psychology profession to address the spiritual needs of their patients.

After providing background into how his early patients at a psychiatric hospital asked if he could talk to them about their spiritual lives (a topic on which he felt unqualified to speak), and making a case that spirituality influences how someone thinks, Rosmarin discussed why psychologists haven’t addressed spiritual matters in the past:

Even though Sigmund Freud’s work is largely discredited, his classification of religious belief as “neurosis” reflected a deep antipathy toward anything that hinted at the metaphysical. Patients who professed religious beliefs were viewed as ill or immature. Having a spiritual perspective was considered a pathological problem to be targeted in the course of treatment.

In my career I haven’t encountered much explicit antipathy toward religion. Yet Freud’s perspectives still have lingering effects: Psychiatrists remain the least religious of all physicians. Clinicians tend to disregard spirituality in the provision of services. I was taught in graduate school to leave God at the threshold of the therapy room.

The result is a chasm between practitioners and patients. In 2015, I published a study that found 58% of patients at my hospital reported significant interest in discussing spirituality with their clinicians. Such discussions can be medically useful, as they help patients to engage more in the treatment process. Further, in another report, belief in God was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms during treatment.

Rosmarin finds this chasm to be anything but helpful to patients:

Ignoring spirituality in some cases feels like a form of malpractice. Recently a patient came to me with tears in her eyes and described how she felt angry at God for cursing her with a severe mood disorder. But she also longed for spiritual solace and connection and was even angrier at the field of psychiatry for not giving her a venue to address spiritual concerns.

Fortunately, McLean has created the Spirituality and Mental Health Program to serve the spiritual needs of its patients.

I have two general, if related, observations on Dr. Rosmarin’s essay.

First, McLean’s program is certainly a step in the right direction. In an increasingly secular culture, it is not in the least bit surprising that people in general, and those who suffer from psychological neuroses in particular, are struggling to make sense of their lives. And it appears that millennials, who have grown up in this culture, appear to be suffering the most.

What secular culture does not understand is that metaphysics is an essential component of our worldview. It is impossible for humans to completely grasp reality, so we must worship something in order for the world to make any sense to us. Otherwise, the world appears to us as nothing but chaos. A psychologist ignoring how a patient addresses spirituality is akin to a car mechanic that never pays attention to the tires.

Second, Rosmarin’s insights about Freud echo what Jung wrote back in the 1930s; namely, that Freud (and Jonathan Adler) developed psychological theories that leave out, in Jung’s words, “the psyche, and is suited to people who believe that they have no spiritual needs or aspirations.” In his essay “Psychotherapists or the Clergy“, Jung wrote about the interplay between mind and spirit:

A psycho-neurosis must be understood as the suffering of a human being who has not discovered what life means for him. But all creativeness in the realm of the spirit as well as every psychic advance of man arises from a state of mental suffering, and it is spiritual stagnation, psychic sterility, which causes this state.

Jung later argues that psychologists and clergy have two distinct yet complementary roles in helping a suffering patient: the psychologist to address neuroses, and the priest to address spiritual suffering. McLean’s new program appears to correctly identify that patients need help in both.

However, as the church’s importance in society has declined, it is an open question whether the clergy are in a position to address the barren spiritual state of their respective flocks.

Hopefully, this will be an issue that church, temple, and mosque can help with over time.

In the meantime, it is extremely encouraging to see the psychological community take preliminary steps to help patients heal both their mind and spirit.

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