close-up of group holding hands

Spirituality has been an underused resource in the urban community, according to a USC researcher. (Photo/iStock)


The stigma of mental health issues may prevent people from seeking spiritual support

USC social worker’s test program uses spirituality as a tool to teach coping skills

March 23, 2017 Kara Watkins-Chow

Spirituality may offer benefits for people with mental health issues, but people may encounter barriers when reaching out for this help.

To cultivate spiritual resources that might have therapeutic value, USC’s Ann Marie Yamada worked with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to design and test a new spirituality-based treatment program.

“Stigma prevents many individuals experiencing schizophrenia or bipolar disorders from seeking spiritual or religious support from a faith-based community organization. It is difficult for some people to find a community where they feel comfortable and accepted,” said Yamada, co-author of a new study and associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “These concerns may not be shared with mental health providers as they may perceive spiritual needs are not appropriate to discuss.”

This stigma creates a gap when patients are unable to find spiritual support from either a health care provider or religious community.

“Within the urban community served by LAC-DMH, spirituality has been an underutilized resource. It is a great tool for addressing the health and recovery needs of the largely African-American and Latino patients served by the participating LAC-DMH agency,” Yamada said.

It is essential, she noted, that investigators understand the significance of spirituality and religion in these cultures and respectfully acknowledge the philosophical differences in practices between both groups.

Soul searching

The Spiritual Strategies for Psychosocial Recovery program uses spirituality as a therapeutic tool to teach practical coping skills.

“After learning that there are few well-documented interventions that incorporate spirituality, Dr. Subica and I wanted to take the best practices already being used and add greater emphasis on coping skills that have been shown to be effective,” said Yamada, referring to Andew Subica, the study co-author with the School of Medicine at the University of California, Riverside.

Group therapy sessions include activities like breathing exercises, goal setting and group discussion to build both social and coping skills.

When people find the strength to improve their coping skills, they are more likely to adhere to their treatment plans and see themselves as active participants in their health and recovery.

Ann Marie Yamada

“When people find the strength to improve their coping skills, they are more likely to adhere to their treatment plans and see themselves as active participants in their health and recovery,” Yamada said.

Taking a leap of faith

Yamada hopes more innovative providers like LAC-DMH will explore the potential of spirituality-infused treatments. Many of the LAC-DMH-affiliated wellness and recovery centers already offer some type of spirituality-related activities that involve meditation, mindfulness or support groups.

It’s just a matter of time, given that 80 percent of the adults sampled across California community mental health centers support integration of spirituality into mental health services, she said.

The study included a small pool of participants, but early findings are promising and participants were consistently satisfied with the therapy sessions. Many patients described mood improvements and a feeling of empowerment and control over their conditions.

“I like having these tools because it helps me feel less tense,” said one woman in the program. “During the week when we don’t have group, I can use them.”

The success of the program suggests that health care providers and spiritual leaders could work together to address the needs of their communities.

“Involvement of both clinicians and religious leaders is one way to reduce the stereotypes held by both professions,” Yamada sai. “These stereotypes serve as barriers to developing mental health services that integrate spirituality effectively.”

Understanding that spirituality can be a resource for many individuals, mental health providers are better equipped to offer comprehensive treatment.

“Ultimately, this intervention is about strengthening coping skills,” she said. “Spirituality enhances personal hope through connection to a greater power that could be religious, but is fundamentally defined in whatever way has meaning to each participant.”