Training Psychiatrists to Use and Respect the Spiritual

New medical school funding will focus training on impact of religious beliefs and prayer on mental illness.

At Loma Linda University School of Medicine, psychiatric residents-in-training will soon be learning about healing beliefs of the world's great religions. At California Pacific Medical Center, aspiring psychiatrists will study spiritual approaches to curing addiction. At Harvard Medical School's Brigham & Women's Hospital, they will study faith healing and examine historical clashes between psychiatry and religion.

In what many in US psychiatric circles say could lead to a dramatic shift in conventional medical approaches to treating and preventing mental illness, seven American medical schools this week were awarded $15,000 grants to establish curriculums that will educate their students about patient's spirituality. Driven by increasing numbers of studies showing the efficacy of prayer, meditation, and religious conviction on physical maladies from colds to cancer, the schools will attempt to introduce the study of such spiritual solutions to those who have for decades relied mostly on drugs to cure mental problems.

"When I was trained as a psychiatrist over 25 years ago, it was absolutely taboo to talk about spirituality," says David Larson, M.D., president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR). "Today, we are entering a new era in psychiatry - one that pays attention to the patient's spiritual as well as emotional needs."

The NIHR announced seven winners of the first John Templeton Spirituality and Medicine Awards for Psychiatric Residency Training Programs April 14. Award money is being provided by the John Templeton Foundation. Winners include schools from Massachusetts, California, Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Patients want understanding

Psychiatrists and instructors at the institutions awarded funds say they have found that patients often use religious language to express their concerns, and would like their doctors to understand those concerns and take them into account in prescribing cures.

"We feel that spiritual issues have been missing from academic psychiatry for too long," says Elizabeth Targ, director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at the California Pacific Medical Center. Noting the growth of evidence showing correlations between spirituality and physical and mental well-being, Targ says: "It is our responsibility to become knowledgeable in learning about the role of spirit in the lives of patients."

Targ says grant money at her institute will fund lectures and presentations over three years of residency training. Topics will include spiritual and religious crises, the role of church in spirituality, and emotional literacy.

"Often what is missing in doctor patient relationships is the expression of what it is that is happening inside a person that produces meaning for him," says Targ. "So this [lecture series] will not be about what it means to be a Christian or a Jew, but rather understanding more about the range of a human's experience and sense of connectedness to something beyond themselves."

In Pittsburgh, the money will be used in a joint program with the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute (PPI), where accredited therapists are trained in both theology and behavioral sciences. "Until now, there has been a tendency in therapy to discount a patient's faith in treatment," says Rev. Carl Jensen, director of PPI. "The idea is to have psychiatrists with a genuine sensitivity to the patient's faith and even to use that in appropriate therapeutic ways."

Exploring the potential

Although some observers of emerging mind/body healing disciplines see an inevitable clash between spiritual methods and those of conventional medicine, interviews with grant winners show they are moving with exploration.

Dr. David Schultz, residency training director at Loma Linda School of Medicine, says spirituality was discarded by some as an element of healing long ago, and it is now finally being brought back into the fold.

"We're saying let's break down the walls of exclusivity between the two and see what happens. We must be guided by what gets the best results," he says.

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