At the age of 23, Suzie Harris thought she would be finishing university, planning a trip overseas with friends or trying to land her first full-time job. Instead, she was locked in a mental health unit after her life spun out of control. Suzie had dropped out of university and was in a destructive pattern of self-harming due to her crippling anxiety—and she was suicidal. Childhood trauma had left her with complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Suzie was hospitalised under the Mental Health Act—against her will—because doctors believed she was a risk to her own safety. Her first stay in a secure ward lasted seven months. For three years she was in and out of hospital—one step forward, two steps back. Her GP and psychiatrists told her they could manage her symptoms with a combination of medication and therapy, but they said it was likely she would never fully recover. Suzie knew that pills and therapy couldn’t “fix” her. She was willing to fight for her mental health, but for her, she knew that the battle couldn’t just be about her brain. It had to involve something bigger.
Suzie was a Christian, however did not feel comfortable talking about her spiritual life with the mental health professionals who were caring for her. She knew the doctors wanted what was best for her, but assumed they would be sceptical about any kind of spiritual experience in their patients. There were others in the ward with Suzie who said they had hurt themselves because “god” had told them to.
Despite that, Suzie knew that the link between her mental health and spiritual life was important and real—something, she believed, could hold the key to her recovery.
It has been a decade since Suzie’s hospital admission. Over the past 10 years, she says she has spent hundreds of hours in consultation rooms, talking to mental health professionals. In that time, she says, a health professional has never asked her about the connection between her faith and her mental health.
“Which is ironic, because being a Christian and having a relationship with God is the thing that got me through the worst days of my life.”
Last year, at the University of Otago’s Wellington campus, academics, health professionals and clergy gathered for a ground-breaking symposium on spirituality and mental health. Spearheaded by Dr Richard Egan from the University of Otago’s public health department, with support from The Salvation Army, the symposium was a chance to talk about how health professionals can help their patients to explore the link between their wellbeing and their spiritual identity.
Egan has spent much of his career researching that very relationship. In his opening remarks, he spoke of a “quiet revolution” taking place in New Zealand healthcare. He told attendees that, in New Zealand, spiritual tools are gradually becoming more accepted in the treatment of mental distress. A growing body of international research is behind this shift, with more than 6,000 academic studies exploring the links between spirituality and health outcomes. One study, from the 2016 Italian Journal of Health Science, found that “spiritual engagement” can have a positive impact by reducing stress, improving cardiovascular and hormonal health, and protecting the immune and nervous systems. In the study, spirituality was also credited with having a “positive impact” on overall mental health.