Positive Living Newsletter

Science and Spirituality: Moving Toward Integration

Rachel Seaman

Many like to believe that the fields of science and spirituality exist as a dyad, with little room for overlap or agreement. Famous debates such as Creationism versus the Big Bang, discourse on evolution, and the ever-growing debates on bodily autonomy further strengthen the tension between the two approaches to the natural world. Because the field of mental health is generally seen to be steeped in science, it has become part of this great debate. Many mental health professionals believe there is no room for the unknown, such as spirituality, within treatment and many spiritual individuals don’t believe empirical practices can cure their suffering. However, both historic and current day practices suggest that it hasn’t always been, and doesn’t have to continue to be, this way. Members of clergy have long acted as therapists through hearing confessions, conducting marriage/couples counseling, and providing vocational advice. Similarly, some Indigenous cultures rely on medicine or ceremonial people to perform spiritual healing.

The medical model approach to mental health suggests that psychopathology is a direct result of biology; that there is an inherent problem with brain structure, genetics, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. If it were that simple then all depressive, anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and traumatic symptoms could easily be fixed by finding the correct medication dosage or surgical procedure. Unfortunately, as many of us know from personal and/or professional experience, it’s rarely that easy. How many of us have a laundry list of past medications that either stopped working, or never worked in the first place? How many of us have prayed that a magic cure would fall out of the sky and make our suffering end? If we are operating under this model that suggests that symptomatology is caused by a physical or biological problem, why is it that medical interventions seem to seldom work on their own? Is it possible that there is a missing component to our current approach to mental health?

The answer is yes. By strictly adhering to a medical and scientific approach to mental health treatment, we fail to acknowledge the very essence of what it means to be human; we fail to acknowledge the many spiritual aspects that exist within and between us. A useful definition of spirituality posits that the foundation of spirituality is meaning making through connections within the self, with others, and with the unseen. Connection with others has been essential to our survival since the beginning of time. Initially, we used it to protect ourselves from threats and as a means for procreation, but now it’s a way of showing that we belong and are a part of something greater than ourselves. It gives us purpose and meaning. The importance of human connection is so important in mental health treatment that a great focus of research and training is dedicated to the idea of the therapeutic relationship. Nearly all therapeutic theories have space for the relationship between provider and client.

If we can understand the importance of spirituality as defined by connectedness with the self, others, and the unknown, then as a field we are able to move toward a more integrated approach to treatment. The current medical model that acts as the gold standard for intervention fails to capture the entirety of the human experience. As mental health professionals not only can we lean on the therapeutic relationship, but we can also encourage clients to seek connection with others in meaningful ways. Although science and spirituality have a long history of being at odds with each other, there is no need for it to remain that way. They are both part of the human experience and thus should both be part of therapeutic interventions.