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Spirituality's Vital Link to Recovery Success

March 13, 2019

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This guest post was written by Ashley Addiction Treatment's chief mission and legacy officer, Father Mark Hushen, who is also Ashley's former president.)

Spirituality has long been an essential part of recovery from substance use disorders (SUDs). Enhancing a person’s spirituality and engaging in spiritual practices is a valuable tool for many patients in recovery. It is most effective and beneficial if utilized in conjunction with a treatment program that focuses on the eight domains of wellness: emotional, financial, social, spiritual, occupational, physical, intellectual and environmental. Unfortunately, the discussion is often framed incorrectly, with the spiritual element defined as a polar opposite to medicine.

A National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) study (Schoenthaler et al.) found that a higher level of spirituality or religiosity was connected to a lower rate of reoccurrence. Another study (Amato and Szydlowski) found that spirituality correlated to reduced anxiety and stress, improved outlook on life, and feelings of support.

Today, comprehensive treatment programs and recovery support systems integrate the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality to achieve positive outcomes. The interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit forms the basis of spiritual interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga, art therapy, equine therapy, music therapy, physical fitness, etc.

There are four parts to addressing SUDs in a patient: physical, mental, social and spiritual. The physical aspects are simple enough—withdrawal, medication, physical care, exercise, diet and sleep hygiene. These aspects keep the patient healthy and active. In mental health, we look for comorbid disorders, such as depression or anxiety, that might negatively influence treatment. The social aspect includes group therapies, accountability partners, and establishment of a support network. The spiritual aspect could be the patient’s religious motivation, but in a broader sense it’s whatever gives meaning to the patient’s life.

As the number of people living with SUDs continues to increase, incorporating a multi-pronged approach to treatment will become increasingly important to engage patients and support their long-term recovery. Programs such as the Wellbriety Movement already offer services for Native Americans, including culturally meaningful activities such as drum circles and naming ceremonies. Collaborations with rabbis, priests and other spiritual leaders can offer a broader perspective to people who gravitate toward religion, while nature hikes, yoga, mindfulness and art therapy are all great ways to spiritually motivate atheists and agnostics.

It’s vital for treatment programs to offer approaches that attract the patients who are not spiritually inclined with programs such as SMART Recovery, where they can find a sense of purpose and belonging that suits them. Overall, there are plenty of techniques to make spiritual care a more inclusive treatment option, and to be able to serve a greater number of people.

Although research shows a relationship between recovery success and spirituality, there needs to be a greater focus on outcome research with qualitative studies to better show the improvement in relationships, workplace productivity and other intangible enhancements in daily life. In a time when addiction is a national crisis, we need to evaluate if we’re doing everything we can to make treatment as enticing, effective and personal as possible for our patients.

Father Mark Hushen has been with Ashley Addiction Treatment since 2007 and brings a wealth of experience in the areas of 12 Step spirituality and alcohol and drug addiction treatment. He is a Catholic priest, a recovering alcoholic and addict, and served as president of Ashley for 10 years. Prior to joining Ashley, he served as the director of clinical pastoral care at Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania.

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