Talking about your faith

When I first meet a new patient/client, I want to make sure that i have identified all the things that are important to them. I ask about housing, relationships, symptoms, etc. For a lot of people, spirituality is an important part of who they are - either as a support in times of trouble, a major influence in the way they live their lives, a source of guilt - or all of the above. But we rarely ask about it.

Nurses are explicitly told to take a 'spiritual history' but this is usually reduced to 'do you go to church, do you have a group of friends there' and no more. Most health professionals, when asked, admit they are unsure about how to ask about someones spirituality - especially if they would not consider themselves a spiritual person. This is doubly true in mental health settings, where spirituality can be closely related to the mental health problem and the culture in some parts of the mental health system can be quite anti-faith (particularly when that faith is Christianity).

In this quarter's Triple Helix magazine (CMF), Dr Kevin Vaughan's article suggests a helpful framework. His article also gives references that back up a lot of what I say here.

  • ask about belief - "do you have a faith that helps you at a time like this?", "what is important to you?".
  • ask about practice - "how does this affect your life?", "have you ever prayed about your situation?".
  • ask about their faith community - "do you belong to a faith community?", "who gives you support?", "what keeps you going?".
If we can ask these three questions, a much more meaningful handful on a person's spirituality is found and more relevant conversations can be had.

In my personal practice, I ask the first question most of the time and I find that about 1/4 of people I ask will say that they do have a faith or they wish they had or they have lost it and would like it back. This can lead to a time of exploration of what they mean by that. Often, I cannot finish the conversation myself, and have helped people contact the chaplaincy. I am not pushy about Christianity - if a person wants to talk about Islam, then that is fine. At the other end of the spectrum, I have also seen people discover Jesus for themselves and start being part of a church community.

Usually the conversation is brief. But it is essential, in that people remember that I asked and they felt valued.
Rob Waller, 23/07/2008