Psychiatry's New Attitude Bridges Gap with Spirituality, Experts Say

Article excerpt

American psychiatry is changing its attitude toward religion.

The American Psychiatric Association has added a category to its new diagnostic manual recognizing religious or spiritual problems as legitimate clinical concerns that are not necessarily related to a mental disorder.

Psychologists, psychiatrists and clergy supporting the change say the previous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders presented religion negatively, reflecting anti-religious biases of mental health professionals.

They say the new sensitivity results from the recognition that religion and spirituality are important to the American population and can actually help patients in their struggle to achieve mental health.

"The fact is that for the first time ever, psychiatry is revisiting the psychoanalytic view of religion, and although they still present it in the language of `problems,' at least they're talking about it in a new way," says Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen, coordinator of pastoral services at St. Louis State Hospital.

Cohen is former president of the Association of Mental Health Clergy, a national group that has been in discussion with the American Psychiatric Association for years over the way psychiatry reacted to religion.

The new manual, due to be made public this month, adds a category under the listing of general problems of living that might need clinical attention, such as bereavement or academic difficulties.

The addition says: "This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questions of other spiritual values which may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution."

Dr. Robert Turner of San Francisco, one of three men who formally proposed the new category to the psychiatric association, says the category would cover "mystical" or "near-death" experiences that psychiatry generally has considered symptomatic of mental disorder.

"We feel these are profound psychological experiences that can have major life-transforming effects on people . . . and are worthy of real positive validation," says Turner, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco. …