The new priests

Recently I met with a group of senior psychiatric trainees to talk about "Spirituality and Mental Health" which is always a controversial topic - should we ask about faith, should we share our faith, should we care about faith? The pioneer psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung once said that "Psychiatrists are the New Priests", meaning that we used to go and confess to a priests, but today we go and do the same with a 'shrink'. But do the new priests want this role?

When people go and see a priest, they are in part looking for some one to talk to, someone to tell them that this has happened to other people too. But they are also looking for absolution of some kind - for forgiveness, for an encounter, for a spiritual intervention. When psychiatrists try to help people, they do so based on the sciences of medicine and psychology and, though the 'human' element may be stronger in psychiatry than other medical disciplines, absolution is not an area that psychiatrists are trained in - nor one they may want to adopt.

Some argue that if you are a Christian, you need to see a Christian Psychiatrist. There has even been a book written on it. Whilst I agree with a lot in the book, there are also some problems with what it says. There are not enough 'Christian Psychiatrists', sometimes you need a psychiatrist and not a priest, and (for many aspects of your care) a psychiatrist who does not share your faith will do just fine. What is needed, however, is a psychiatrist who respects your faith. Moreover, they need to proactively ask about it just as much as they need to ask about your upbringing, your social situation and your aspirations as it is just as core to your mental health.

Psychiatrists, research shows, are less likely to be people of faith than the general population. Many also feel unsure about asking questions about faith, and the emphasis on science in medicine certainly doesn't help. They can be unsure how to deal with come-back questions about their own faith, or whether they will be able to answer detailed queries about how faith and mental health interact. However, most people just want to be listened to and have their core beliefs noted and respected. My own practice is to ask all people, "Do you have a faith that helps you at a time like this?" [more on this here] and see what comes next. Luckily, there is an increasing need to this topic to be taken seriously. Public pressure about person-centred care means people expect to be asked, and legislation such as the planned Single Equalities Act will make asking a requirement.

The new priests have a choice. One option is to see the trends and the Equality agenda as irrelevant to psychiatry and just get on with what can perceived as the 'core' of their work. The other is to find a halfway house with Jung - to be part priest and part shrink, to work together with faith communities and practice [w]holistically. To be quite honest, I don't want the job of priest; but I'm all up for multiple, varied and complementary approaches to increased mental wellbeing.
Rob Waller, 12/09/2008
Margaret (Guest) 07/02/2010 21:08
surely you have conflict between your role as a psychiatrist and as a Christian. one area being following a meeting with GOD or angels. if GOD gave the person a sign of His presence or involvement in his care, the psychiatrist may well attempt to persuade the person that it was a hallucination or an illusion.GOD may well introduce himself through music changing the words of songs being listened to in order to educate the listener.this may not be apparant to others listening to the same piece because the education plan has been devised as a tutorial which in a secular situation would be in one to one basis. For a person with faith GOD changing words can be unexpected since GOD is never boring but to a psychiatrist evidence of hallucinations or of hearing impairment.
Catherine (Guest) 07/02/2010 21:08
What a fascinating thought. As a committed Christian and mental health nurse I consider myself to be in a very priveleged position. Is there something in the perception of psychiatrists as 'priests' that reflects the whole 'white coat' syndrome associated with the medical world. It makes me slightly uncomfortable to be honest. I feel it is quite important to resist the concept in reality although Ii can appreciate that often people, especially in crisis will seek that kind of relationship. Ii think it says more about how we maybe need to alter the way we evolve services to provide for real people instead of biological entities.
EC (Guest) 07/02/2010 21:09
i am a psychiatrist who is also a Christian. My faith roots and supports my life and my work. I am priviledged that my patients share such personal parts of their lives , and the discussions we have can make" every day conversation" seem dull.

I am not a priest.

I am interested in the psychological, social and biological (medical) factors which have affected a person, in the search for an understanding and a way forward from the current problem. Importantly the factors that sustain a person , providing support (Faith, family , friends, employment, community, enthusiasms) are all allies in this quest.
Margaret (Guest) 07/02/2010 21:09
Christians and Jews who have great faith in GOD realise that He does miracles today as He has done in the past.We know that He can guide us to see things that can have significance for us personally whereas a non believer would say coincidence or perhaps delusional. One example would be a woman putting her tumble dryer on and when opening the dorr finding a raven's feather approximately 14 inches long. A non believer would say it was put there by a human. A believer would say was there a human in the house and if not would say well it was either God or an angel who put it there. If a person sees GOD's Glory, a non believer looks for physical or mental illness

and would dismiss this as a hallucination and want to give medication.This gives a patient a dilemma - the perception of being disloyal to GOD by taking medication and also the attitude of neither needing or wanting to take the drugs. When something unusual happens to a believer and he or she sees GOD's involvement, they cannot agree that it is due to auditory or visual hallucinations but they do observe the side effects of psychiatric drugs on other patients and do not want to have them. The difficulty is in discerning hallucination from miraculous interventionv-vknowing when GOD is to be trusted above the help that psychiatric drugs give. When patients are met with a non-believing psychiatrist who is not prepared to consider the fact that God could be giving psychiatric treatment to a patient, there is a lack of trust between patient and psychiatrist and the patient is less likely to take medication because it is viewed with suspician.Sometimes medication is an important part of a treatment regime but when a patient views a psychiatrist with suspician it is less likely to be taken which is very sad for both patient and psychiatrist.
Barbara (Guest) 07/02/2010 21:10
I think that psychiatrists and priests usually have a quite different perspective on how they see the people they meet. From what I know (most) psychiatrists first of all see people as a "body"and therefore their problems from the perspective of what's going on in their body, e.g. what their neurotransmitters are doing or not doing and how medication might work to regulate that.

The priest on the other hand side is more concerned by people's inner world, their beliefs. What I find most interesting is the combination of both, that somehow our beliefs affect our emotions and therefore affect our body and the other way round.
Margaret (Guest) 07/02/2010 21:10
Psychiatrists must have problems in treating patients who appear to have hallucinations - when patients see or hear things that people around do not. As Christians we accept that GOD performs miracles and that there can be interaction between men and angels as well as between GOD and man. Without a Christian outlook, surely some people would be diagnosed with psychosis who are in fact having a training period with GOD. If Gideon had presented the fleece and the story surrounding it to a psychiatrist, would the psychiatrist dismiss this as delusion ocoincidence if he has no faith?If Moses had spoken about the burning bush to a psychiatrist a few days ago, would he not have been treated for a psychosis or schizophrenia rather than as a man who had met GOD ? Sometimes people have strange experiences and do not seek absolution but are seeking ways to be at ease with the situation.
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