Aim: To undertake and report on high quality academic research on spiritual experiences.
I am currently a PhD student in the Applied Psychology department at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), supported by the Professional Development Foundation (PDF), and the Alef Trust. My principle supervisor is Prof. Les Lancaster and my second supervisor is Dr. David Lukoff.
My overall research question is: what helps people navigate their way through spiritual crisis (or spiritual emergency)? The PhD programme is Professional Practise: Psychological Perspectives and is comprised of a literature review, a small scale study, an applied study, a report on professional practise, and a reflective account.
The Empirical Evidence-base for Interventions for Spiritual Crisis
For my literature review I explored the existing empirical studies on spiritual crisis/emergency. There are relatively few empirical studies but, despite the dearth of academic studies in this area, there are five main themes of research emerging. These are summarised below and some of the key articles are cited.
The first theme is comprised of the evaluation studies done on alternative approaches to psychosis and schizophrenia in the 1970s and 1980s. These take a psycho-social approach that minimises the use of medication and encourages the working through of the experience as a problem-solving process in a safe communal space.
Mosher, L. (1999). Soteria and Other Alternatives to Acute Psychiatric Hospitalization. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 187, 142–149.
Mosher, L., & Bola, J. (2004). Soteria-California and its American Successors. Ethical Human Psychology & Psychiatry, 6(1), 7–23.
Mosher, L., Vallone, R., & Menn, A. (1995). The Treatment of Acute Psychosis Without Neuroleptics. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 41(3), 157–173.
The second theme consists of the more recent studies that assess the effects of the appraisal of an experience, by self or others, on its outcome. Positive appraisals tend to result in less distress and reduce the need for clinical intervention.
Hartley, J., & Daniels, M. (2008). A grounded theory investigation into negative paranormal or spiritual experience, based on the ‘diabolical mysticism’ of William James. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 21(1), 51–72.
Heriot-Maitland, Charlie, Knight, M., & Peters, E. (2012). A Qualitative Comparison of Psychotic-Like Phenomena in Clinical and Non-Clinical Populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, 37–53.
Brett, C., Heriot-Maitland, C., McGuire, P., & Peters, E. (2014). Predictors of Distress Associated with Psychotic-like Anomalous Experiences in Clinical and Non-clinical Populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53, 213–227.
Narratives and Frameworks
The third theme evidences the importance of a narrative, story, or framework of understanding for the process. These frameworks can be based upon psychological and transpersonal models. Any number of spiritual systems or religious traditions can also provide a context within which to make sense of the experience and different cultural perspectives are important to consider too.
Hartley, J. (2010). Mapping Our Madness: The Hero's Journey as A Therapeutic Approach. In Psychosis and Spirituality: Consolidating the New Paradigm (pp. 227-238). Wiley-Blackwell.
Clarke, I., Mottram, K., Taylor, S., & Pegg, H. (2017). Narratives of Transformation In Psychosis. In Spirituality and Narrative in Psychiatric Practice: Stories of Mind and Soul (pp. 108–120). Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Fischler, R. (2019). The Crux of the Crisis: An ethnography of UK Spiritual Peer-Support Networks on narratives and experiences of mental health/spiritual crisis as types of knowledges. MSc Thesis, University of Amsterdam.
Attitudes, Behaviours, and Practices
The fourth theme, which is currently the least researched, investigates the effectiveness of particular self-help attitudes, behaviours and practices. There have been no studies that assess the effectiveness of any specific psychotherapeutic interventions for spiritual crisis. However, Brook’s (2019) study did examine the effectiveness of 84 behaviours and practices. Those rated most helpful were practising compassion, finding calmer environments, expression of the experience through creativity, and allowing psycho-spiritual issues to surface rather than resisting them.
Brook, M. G. (2019). Struggles Reported Integrating Intense Spiritual Experiences: Results From a Survey Using the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences Inventory. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
Finally, there appear to be two main strategies for managing a spiritual crisis: a “suppressive” strategy for calming down and regaining some control of the process, and a “facilitative” strategy for exploring the deeper personal meaning and significance of the experience.
Sedlakova, H., & Rihacek, T. (2019). The Incorporation of a Spiritual Emergency Experience Into a Client’s Worldview: A Grounded Theory. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 59(6), 877–897.
An Evaluation of the UK Spiritual Crisis Network (SCN)
In 2021 I completed a service evaluation of the UK Spiritual Crisis Network (SCN). The SCN provides online support for people affected by spiritual crisis in the form of: email support, information on its website, peer-support groups, training and awareness events, occasional conferences, and an online forum, since 2011. This was the first evaluation of the SCN since it was established in 2004. The results are now available as a summary report and an article for publication in an academic journal is now being prepared.