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Donors Foster Connection Between Spirituality and Mental Health

May 25, 2016 Print

Dr. David H. Rosmarin’s mission is to treat the whole patient.

According to a 2011 Gallup Poll, 93% of Americans believe in God or a higher power and 50% indicate that religion is very important to them. Despite these statistics, few mental health clinicians receive training in assessing a patient’s spiritual beliefs and many are therefore uncomfortable initiating this discussion.

Recognizing the importance of addressing patients’ spiritual needs, Dr. Rosmarin has helped McLean launch a new Spirituality and Mental Health Program (SMHP). As its founding director, he is both intriguing colleagues and captivating donors with his innovative research and programming. The program offers spiritually-integrated treatment groups and 1:1 consultations with patients and staff throughout the hospital. The hospital envisions a chaplaincy component—a service that is currently offered on a limited basis by a volunteer chaplain, but that is hoped will grow as funding permits.

Dr. David H. Rosmarin, Reverend Dr. Barbara H. Nielsen, David and Susan Fowler
Dr. David H. Rosmarin, Reverend Dr. Barbara H. Nielsen, David and Susan Fowler

Philanthropy has been critical to the development of this program, and its earliest supporter was the Reverend Dr. Barbara H. Nielsen. Reverend Nielsen is trained as a clinical psychologist and was one of the first women ordained as a minister in the Episcopal Church. She understands uphill battles. Her dissertation research focused on female seminary students. She found that providing women with positive spiritual messages and a curriculum that included Women’s Studies led to noticeably increased self-esteem. This reinforced the Reverend’s belief that for many—regardless of faith—integrating spirituality into mental health treatment can be enormously beneficial.

“David’s work brings me such joy,” she says. “My hope is that he expands his program so that anyone who wants these services can access them.”

Researching the Missing Piece

Dr. Rosmarin has spent the past five years researching the clinical relevance of spirituality to mental health including the efficacy of spiritually-integrated interventions. He is frequently approached by patients wanting to engage with him about faith, which solidifies his sense that mental health treatment is missing a vital component.

“We encourage patients to talk about all sorts of private things—money, relationships, sexuality—but as professionals we are not equipped to deal with their need to talk about spirituality and we shy away from discussions about faith,” explains Dr. Rosmarin.

McLean welcomed Dr. Rosmarin’s work and readily provided a forum for his research. He has conducted studies in collaboration with several of McLean’s leading psychiatrists and authored more than 30 peer-reviewed papers. His work revealed that people are eager to talk about spirituality and the majority were interested in integrating spirituality into their treatment. He also found that belief in God was associated with better expectations for treatment and greater decreases in depression. Another study found that positive religious coping was associated with increased well-being and decreased depression and anxiety among psychotic patients.

Supporting Patients’ Spiritual Needs

David and Susan Fowler recently came forward with major support for the program. They are not religious people, according to Susan. They consider themselves more spiritual—but are not regular churchgoers.

Their son Logan’s adolescence was marred by a devastating array of psychiatric diagnoses. After multiple hospitalizations, assorted medications, and electroconvulsive therapy, nothing was helping. In fact the medication made things worse and Logan became agitated and started hearing voices. They had a desperate search for anything that would work. “You don’t give up on your child,” says Susan.

Logan found the positive messages of Joel Osteen, founder and pastor of Lakewood Church, a nondenominational charismatic Christian church located in Houston, Texas. Skeptical at first, his parents were bowled over by the difference that Osteen’s hopeful messages made on Logan’s sense of well-being. Logan says “Joel saved my life.”

Dr. Rosmarin and volunteer chaplain Rev. Terrence P. McGillicuddy
Dr. Rosmarin and volunteer chaplain Rev. Terrence P. McGillicuddy

Today, Logan lives free of medication. His daily affirmations are meditative and centering. When his life is interrupted by his illness, he knows how to get himself back on track.

“We understand that medication and traditional forms of treatment are life-savers for many,” says David Fowler. “But we hoped to encourage alternative avenues, and this program was something that we wanted to support.”

Dr. Rosmarin is clear that there is potential for both positive and negative effects from the union of spirituality and mental health, but he believes deeply that treating the whole person means learning to respond to any need to integrate spirituality into care for the many patients who want such an approach. Donor Esther Mulroy of the Tamarack Foundation agrees. She supports the program because “having permission to access spirituality is a critical aspect of being able to discover who you are and lead a full life,” she says.

“In essence, it’s a form of cultural sensitivity,” says Dr. Rosmarin. “So we owe it to our patients to attend to and address a domain that so many people draw upon to provide a sense of peace or purpose during extraordinarily difficult times.”

Please consider making a gift today to McLean’s Spirituality and Mental Health Program.