Spirituality is concerned with people finding meaning and purpose in their lives, as well as the sense of belonging. It involves belief in an all powerful force - the Supreme Being or God or Higher Self. Neurobehavioral scientists define spirituality as 'the pursuit of an altered state of consciousness that enables the mystic to become aware of cosmic realities that cannot be grasped during normal states of consciousness. Most of us, if not all, follow some spiritual leaders, be it the more recent Dalai Lama or Baba Ramdev or the spiritual masters of the bygone era such as Buddha or Vivekananda.
Spirituality can be seen to be more general and inclusive in its nature, while on the other hand religion is seen to be more specific and linked with a particular faith, tradition and belief in a god.
AdvertisementA study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that people claiming to be spiritual, but not normally religious, were more likely to suffer from a host of mental challenges.
The study revealed that spiritual people suffered many problems including abnormal eating conditions, drug abuse, anxiety disorder, phobia and neurosis. These people were also more likely than others to be taking medicines for problems regarding mental health.
Professor Michael King from the University College London and his colleagues, who carried out this study, wrote: "Our main finding is that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual."
About 7,403 men and women were randomly selected for the study in England; majority of them were Christians. They were questioned about their spiritual, religious beliefs and mental state.
About 35 per cent of the participants claimed that they attended church, mosque, synagogue or temple, and were labeled 'religious'. About 19 per cent of the participants claimed to have spiritual beliefs without being conventionally religious, while 46 per cent were atheists, that is, they were neither religious nor spiritual.
The study revealed that spiritual people were 50 per cent more likely to have a generalized anxiety disorder, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and had a 40 per cent greater chance of receiving treatment with psychotropic drugs. They also had a 77 per cent higher chance of being dependent on drugs and were 37 per cent more at risk of neurotic disorder.
The study also found that individuals of religious faith and those with none experienced equal levels of mental problems, however there were fewer problems with drugs or alcohol among the faithful.
It shall, however, be noted that the study did not find any relation between religious belief and happiness.
The study had more limitations. For example, such studies cannot prove 'cause and effect'. So it could not ascertain whether mental ill-heath makes people spiritual or whether spirituality is somehow detrimental to mental health. Moreover, those with more spiritual view of life may prefer using alternative medicines to treat diseases such as depression although these may be less effective than conventional medicines.
One recent large internet study in the US reported that non-religious people with spiritual beliefs were emotionally less stable than other groups. However, they made up only 2 per cent of the study sample.
But, the study conducted by Professor King has revealed that there is increasing evidence that people who claim to be spiritual, but not religious, are more vulnerable to mental disorders. The study researchers were also of the view that the matter needs to be researched more in future.
The study can be concluded in two ways. It could be either that spirituality somehow causes 'more mental health problems, potentially through lack of social support increasing a person's vulnerability' or that people develop spirituality 'potentially through searching for alternative answers and explanations for their problems'. Thus, the dilemma remains - which came first, the spirituality or the mental ill health.