Faith Matters

Professor Linda Chatters has long under-stood that religion and spirituality affect both physical and mental health. Last winter she turned that understanding into a course, HBHE 710: Religion, Spirituality, and Health. Chatters spoke to Findings about what she learned from the course and why she thinks it's so important for public health students and practitioners to be aware of religion and spirituality.

Why a class in religion and spirituality at U-M SPH?

Religion and spirituality are important social determinants of health for many, many people. Faith shapes health behaviors and beliefs. And in our increasingly multicultural society, we need to understand how we differ and how we are similar in terms of faith traditions and their role in our lives.

How might such an understanding affect the practice of public health?

One way is the extent to which people seeking help for health problems will use faith measures —like prayer or consulting with clergy—as opposed to seeking medical care. Another is the extent to which clients will find health interventions acceptable or unacceptable because of what their faith dictates. Some faith communities do not welcome conversations about sexuality, for example, and that has implications for interventions focused on sexual health.

What challenges did you face in designing the course?

The United States is still predominantly Christian, and the students and I struggled with the lack of a good body of knowledge of other faith traditions and their connections to health. The average American is functionally illiterate when it comes to other faith traditions—and even the diversity within the Christian faith. Minority faith traditions are even less known in the U.S. and are often discriminated against and stigmatized—both in general and within public health and care settings. I saw this course as a way to encourage students to begin thinking both about how their own religious and spiritual background influences their role as public health practitioners and what it means to be a Muslim or Catholic or Hindu client seeking services.

What did you learn from the students?

In the context of two assignments—one a religious/spiritual history and the second an examination of students' religious and spiritual autobiographies and professional roles—they homed in on their own conceptions of religion and spirituality. Several students went to Catholic schools and felt this had informed their present beliefs. Students who came from minority traditions (Muslim, Hindu) similarly cited their faith as a formative influence. Other students eschewed a formal faith tradition and identified as agnostic or atheist and felt they were more "spiritual" than "religious." Many students talked about a spiritual journey—how they'd been raised, how those values and traditions had re-emerged in young adulthood. I specifically asked them to talk about the tension between their professional roles and their religion/spirituality. Many of them said their faith traditions gave them their passion, their energy, and their commitment to social justice and to serving others. It was really inspiring—and a privilege—to read these accounts.

How Does Your Faith Tradition Inform Your Public Health Work?

The following comments are from students in HBHE 710: Religion, Spirituality, and Health.

Islam teaches us, basically, the first saying of the Prophet is to love for your brother what you love for yourself. This is universal. It doesn't matter whether the other person is of a different faith, or they practice their faith more (or less) than you do, or they're your enemy. The understanding is that if you can do something to help someone, regardless of how you view them or they view you, you do what you can. That's always stuck with me.

This is one of the greatest things about public health. We're collectively tied together in our need to give back and better society as a whole. Public health is one of those fields where we're always thinking about people in greater terms—as opposed to individuals. My faith helps me carry on doing the work I want to do. "
—Nashia Choudhury, MPH candidate ('15); President, Muslim Graduate Student Association

I grew up in a Hindu household. Hindu allows you a lot of freedom with what you want to believe—it's more of an ethical than a faith-based framework, which is why I like the faith. The way I understand it, when you're doing good, then you're doing what you're supposed to be doing in your life. If you're helping people in a posi-tive way, then you're serving your faith.

I'm going to medical school after getting my MPH, and one of the questions I know I'll face is what to do as a clinician when people bring religion into the conversation. I think it helps to have a framework. That's the main thing I got from Professor Chatters's class—it let me get comfortable with religion and spirituality. I knew it was important for some people, but I didn't know how important it was."
—Shreya Sharman, MPH '14; Student, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

We learned in class that 77 percent of people in the United States are affiliated with a religion, so religion and spirituality are unavoidable topics. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school from first through eighth grade. As a nurse at Seattle Children's Hospital, I saw how the large life events that you witness in hospital settings have religious and spiritual meaning to people. And I saw that the more you know about someone's culture, the more willing they are to let you in and trust you. Trust is a big part of providing care to people.

People who are able to get outside their own beliefs and respect others make the best practitioners and providers. Even if you're the same religion as someone else, it doesn't mean you know what they're experiencing. Religion and spirituality are so much more complex than that. We all need to do more to understand people's individual beliefs."
—Jacqueline Dufek, MPH candidate ('15)

Coffee, Tea, and Spiritual Values

What do faith leaders have to say to the medical community? How can religious communities help disseminate public health messages? Questions like these are a routine part of the fare at a monthly breakfast meeting hosted during the academic year by U-M SPH faculty and staff and attended by a range of spiritual and health care leaders.

The breakfast gatherings are a place "to look at issues of spirituality, science, and genetics," says Susan King, associate director of the U-M Life Sciences and Society Program, who helped launch the series in 2004. Conversations are far-ranging and touch on issues where science, ethics, and spiritual values overlap and sometimes conflict—such as in vitro fertilization, genetic counseling, and end-of-life care.

By wrestling with these issues, and by assembling a collection of ethical guidelines from the major religious traditions, the group has become a valued resource for both the medical and spiritual communities in the region. King says she looks forward to many more years of spirited discussion around topics like compassion, dignity, health, and community relations.