Health conference raises spirits

Last Friday, U of T played host to the second Canadian Inter-professional Conference on Spirituality and Healthcare.

The conference, which opened with a presentation of sacred rituals from six different religious traditions (First Nations, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist), brought together people from all faiths and health professions to raise awareness about the value of spirituality in health and healing. Discussions, lectures and workshops were equally diverse, covering everything from the value of mindfulness meditation in psychotherapy, to the use of chi-gong to deal with physical and mental illness.

Although the conference lasted only three days, several complex issues were being addressed, particularly the role of spiritual life in health and healing, and the therapeutic value of techniques such as yoga, prayer and meditation.

Dr. Yvonne Kason, the conference chair and a practising family physician and transpersonal psychotherapist, was motivated both personally and professionally to organize the event: “Nobody knows why meditation helps depression, but it does—why meditation helps anxiety disorders, but it does.”

“I have for years now been using techniques like guided visualization, various meditation techniques, various prayers, together with traditional therapies, with my patients.”

In addition to offering new techniques, the conference was also intended to emphasize the value of clergy in healing. When patients are part of a religious community, they have access to a tremendous source of social support that is often overlooked by medical professionals. A holistic approach to healthcare considers not only the illness, but the patient’s entire mental/emotional, physical, and social existence—mind, body, and spirit.

Following naturally from this, Dr. Kason stressed the multicultural aspect of spirituality in healthcare. “Patients may be from many diverse cultures and spiritual traditions, and it’s very important for people when they’re going through their health crises, their healing, that they get support, if it’s going to be spiritual support according to their particular cultural tradition.”

Dr. Kason is hopeful that holistic and spiritual dimensions of healthcare will eventually become part of health curricula in Canadian universities, as it is in the United States.

“In the last number of years there’s more awareness now, I would think in all the health professions, about body, mind and now spirit. It’s timely now that the medical community is slowly becoming ready to realize that the spiritual dimension [is important]—maybe it’s not important for everybody—but it’s important for a lot of people.”

She wasn’t too worried about the potential for skepticism or resistance to this emerging approach, and hinted that the idea of spirituality in healthcare is part of a wider social change.

“There are some people that are very, very opposed to anything to do with spirituality, but I think that’s a losing battle. People are doing this anyway, whether or not the doctors and the researchers approve of it, or like it, or agree with it. People are going out and they’re doing yoga, the students are meditating in the lounge… the change is coming. I think it’s not a top-down change, I think it’s a bottom-up change.”

The conference was hosted by the continuing education program of the faculty of medicine.

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