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I’m going to pick up this blog where I left off last time, raising the issue of spirituality and addiction.   Recently I was one of 3 graduates invited to speak at a 10 year celebration event for London South Bank University’s MSc in Addiction Psychology and Counselling.  It was a really good evening and a privilege to be part of.  My presentation centred on a summary of my work and research on young people, substance misuse and spirituality.

There are many reasons people use drugs and alcohol, but one of these is to facilitate spiritual/religious experiences (Bron, 1975[1]).  A view supported by A. E. Wilder-Smith, a Professor of Pharmacology, who stated “Humans were designed to have transcendent or spiritual experiences.  But in the rational, materialistic western world we have turned our backs on the supernatural, however, when a person experiments with drugs he/she recognises subconsciously something of the transcendent he/she was created to experience.”

A huge body of research confirms the benefits of spirituality and religion on people’s mental health across the world (see Religion and Belief Matter: An Information Resource for Healthcare Staff.http:// www.scottishinterfaithcouncil.org/resources/ Religion+and+Belief.pdf[2]).  This is especially so in the field of drugs and alcohol including prevention, treatment and recovery (Miller, 1998[3]; Miller & Thoresen, 1999[4]; Pardinia, Plante, Sherman & Stump, 2000[5]; Piedmont, 2001[6]).  However, hardly any research has been conducted on under-18s in treatment for drug/alcohol problems in the UK.  So having developed a youth version of the 12 steps and seen a lasting and profound impact with a group of Christian young people with drug/alcohol problems, I wanted to know if it was possible to incorporate spirituality and religion in work with other youth and what that might look like.

“What is the role of religion/spirituality for youth in treatment for substance misuse?” was the question that drove my original dissertation.  However, due to the diverse definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ I needed to clarify what these concepts actually mean to young people in treatment. The title of a paper by Stuart Rose highlights this perfectly “Is the Term ‘Spirituality’ a Word that Everyone Uses, But Nobody Knows What Anyone Means by it?”[7]

I’m writing this in the lead up to Halloween, which for many people across the world is an evening associated with trick-or-treating, pumpkin lanterns, horror films, parties and dressing up in costumes of skeletons, witches, ghosts and monsters.  I enjoyed doing the same as a child.  But the name actually means ‘holy evening’ originating from ‘All Hallows Eve’, and many celebrate it as part of a Christian religious festival dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (holy/hallows) and martyrs.  For some it is seen as an opportunity to face the reality of death in a humorous way, and for others it is a deeply spiritual occasion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween).

So how does a spiritual festival remembering the dead and a secular evening of ghosts and horror relate to youth in treatment for substance misuse?  

While there is common ground between religion and spirituality, which has been identified as a ‘non-material dimension’ and ‘belief’, young people in treatment differentiate religion and spirituality in ways which parallel some of the existing literature on the subject, yet with one apparently novel finding: all of the participants I interviewed associated spirituality primarily with ‘ghosts, spirits and the paranormal’.  They associate spirituality with the occult.  This means when we talk about spirituality with young people in treatment for drug/alcohol use, we either need to use different language or re-define what we’re talking about.  It may also explain why (despite the fact spirituality appealed to more of them), when asked about whether they thought spirituality or religion could be used in treatment to help them, they favoured religious approaches providing they respect client autonomy and were sensitive to clients’ needs.

Here’s a summary of the things they suggested:

  • education given by religious people about their religion and beliefs and the personal benefits, especially how it might help the client with his/her drug intake.
  • Personal prayer as a form of relational/therapeutic help.
  • Mutual support for young people with similar beliefs, like a support group.

Our first RTC will be opening in February 2016 as a 1 year pilot project, incorporating spirituality as part of the treatment programme.  Click here to see a film about our work.

[1] Bron, B. (1975). Intoxication and ecstasy: The phenomenon of toxic ecstasy in young people. Confinia Psychiatrica, 18(2), 61-72.

[2] Religion and Belief Matter: An Information Resource for Healthcare Staff [Online]. Available at http://www.scottishinterfaithcouncil.org/resources/Religion+and+Belief.pdf

(accessed on 25th May 2012).

[3] Miller, W. R. (1998). Researching the spiritual dimensions of alcohol and other drug problems. Addiction, 93 (7), 979-990.

[4] Miller, W. R., & Thoresen, C. E. (1999). Spirituality and Health. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating spirituality into Treatment (pp. 179-198). New York: American Psychological Association.

[5] Pardinia, D.A., Plante, T.G., Sherman, A., and Stump, J.E. (2000). Religious faith and spirituality in substance abuse recovery: Determining the mental health benefits. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 19, 347-354

[6] Piedmont, R. L. (2001). Spiritual Transcendence and the Scientific Study of Spirituality. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 67(1), 4-14.

[7] Rose, S. (2001). Is the Term ‘Spirituality’ a Word that Everyone Uses, But Nobody Knows What Anyone Means by it? Journal of Contemporary Religion 16(2), 193-207.