Is spirituality relevant in addressing mental health issues?

"Psycho-spiritual" paradigm shift towards holistic mental resilience in an age of intellectual over-reliance.

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Published in Astro Awani & Bernama, image by Astro Awani.

Contemporary psychology provides plenty of suggestions on the prevention or minimisation of mental health issues such as exercise, relaxation techniques, good diet, getting enough sleep and avoiding stressors. Management and treatments include counselling, cognitive behavioural changes, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, psychotherapies, drugs and medications.

Contemporary psychology provides plenty of suggestions on the prevention or minimisation of mental health issues such as exercise, relaxation techniques, good diet, getting enough sleep and avoiding stressors. Management and treatments include counselling, cognitive behavioural changes, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, psychotherapies, drugs and medications.

The spiritual perspective doesn’t discard the physiological component of mental health, but the reverse cannot be said for mainstream psychology. In that sense, the spiritual perspective is more holistic.

Various religions consider man as not merely as an advanced primate, but a being of spiritual origin or nature, operating through the biological avatar and perceiving the world via the cognitive functions.

As an example, Islam recognises that man consist of several interconnected dimensions: the spirit/soul, the qalb (the spiritual “heart”, the seat of the soul or the spiritual centre), the intellect/mind (the qalb’s seat of understanding and reason), and the physical self (biology, and its basic animal instincts and needs). These dimensions have a hierarchy (listed sequentially above from highest to lowest) of influence on the man, but it can be in both directions.

Notwithstanding fundamental differences, similar general concepts exist in Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islamic, Judaism). The point is that there is a higher dimension of the human being, impacting the mental state and vice versa.

From the Islamic perspective, and as pointed by Consultant Psychiatrist and member of the Royal College of Psychiatrist, Dr Mostafa Al Badawi, the change to a whole-hearted acceptance and understanding and practice of Islam and its teachings is followed with a “cognitive restructuring and the emotional correlates”.

One of Malaysia’s’ eleventh recipient of the prestigious Anugerah Tokoh Akademik Negara Professor Tan Sri Mohd Kamal Hassan, mentioned that God’s comprehensive guidance provide clear answers that cannot be provided through human reasoning alone. These fundamental questions regarding human existence impact how we respond to the stressors of life.

Key questions include: What is the true purpose and meaning of human existence? What is the ultimate destiny of mankind? What is the meaning and purpose of the universe and the life of this transitory world? What are the true measurements of success and failure, gain and loss, happiness and misery? What are the correct means of achieving true happiness and of averting true misery and failure in this world, and in the Hereafter?

A complete understanding and conviction of the answers to these questions will result in the restructuring of the cognitive faculty, transforming his or her entire world view which translates into vastly different (and correct) responses to both good and bad worldly events.

Of course, biology, genetics, impacts of psychological trauma or damage (physical, chemical etc.) on the physiological aspect of the mind plays a role in mental health, and if so, the holistic psycho-spiritual approach doesn’t reject what is prescribed in mainstream psychiatric treatments, so long as it doesn’t harm the body and mind further.

It is ironic that the over-reliance of the intellect in searching for answers to improve the human condition (in mainstream sources) results in the almost exclusive focus on outward and peripheral forms of changes, instead of the fortification of this internal dimension which humans rely solely upon.

This is akin to an attempt of building the best national security infrastructures, yet forgetting to install basic home security.

For example, if we refer to the white paper “Building Back Broader: Policy Pathways for an Economic Transformation” by the World Economic Forum (WEF), it recognises the need for new models that actually solves societal problems, and the importance of fairer distribution of economic value between workers and companies, and across all socio-economical, geographical, and national divides.

Although it is true that we need vast changes in economic systems and governing principles, these are still outward approaches.

Not to mention such changes require time for collective evolution and may go through several iterations (through socio-economic changes, civil unrest, geopolitical crisis and even war) before settling down. People will always need something at the individual level while society goes through these revolutions.

The WEF white paper provided a matrix of likelihood of world major events and its level of impacts, which can act as rough guidance on where we need to prioritise out efforts, in order to avoid those catastrophic trajectories.

However, WEF also included risk events categorised under “unknown likelihood” and “unknown impacts” which it dubbed as “Frontier risks”. The list makes up more than half of the events in the table, which includes bio-weapons, human-engineered pandemic, data theft, AI superintelligence, genetic engineering and many more. The list is of course non-exhaustive but it’s clearly limited to our imagination.

The age of uncertainty resonates with what Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Niall Ferguson, mentioned (as reported by Bloomberg) in that “the next global disaster is already on its way”, and that “we simply cannot know which of all the possible future disasters will strike and when. All we can do is learn from history how to construct social and political structures that are at least resilient and at best antifragile”

When the limited and fragile human mind is subjected to continuous levels of high uncertainties (yet still hopelessly reliant on reason alone), it can result in the myriad forms of mental and emotional crisis manifesting as confusion, anger, severe anxiety, chronic depression, and even insanity.

Both Ferguson and the WEF document acknowledges that we need new “constructs”, “structures”, “systems” and “models” – all external changes without any focus on the fortification of the mind as the last bastion of personal defence against external stressors.

It is unthinkable that future paradigm shifts ignore this crucial component of individual well-being (collectively contributing to societal well-being) given the fact that we can never address all parameters that could be contributors to potential future disasters.

Therefore, it is ultimately how these external calamities translate into our own thoughts (and our corresponding actions) that will determine whether our minds will see these as ease or difficulties.

As mentioned by famous motivational speaker and writer, Yasmin Mogahed, “The measure of ease or difficulty in hardship is on a different scale – an unseen scale”. Using the scientific analogy, this means there’s no “standard curve” to assign levels of events to a certain universal measurement level of hardship or ease. This is aligned with the fact that people have different circumstances, face different trials, and have different capabilities to process external stressors and undergo tribulations.

Yasmin Mogahed pointed to a fundamental principle which defines the level of ease or difficulty (from the Islamic perspective) of any events when she stated: “The ease or level of difficulty is based only on the level of Divine help. Nothing, nothing is easy, unless God makes it easy on me. Not a traffic jam. Not a paper cut. And nothing is hard if Allah makes it easy on me. Not illness, not death, not being thrown into fire, or tortured by a tyrant.”

Other religions may have their own specific teachings and concepts that should be explored by experts in the field on medical science, psychology and counselling.

The objective should be to harmonise psycho-spiritual components from the authoritative sources alongside contemporary scientific knowledge in order to develop an integrated approach to prevent and overcome various mental health issues plaguing the society today.

This is the paradigm shift towards holistic mental resilience, which is a crucial yet increasingly forgotten part of improving the human condition.

Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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