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Conference: In an age of documentation, spirituality's effects can be quantified

May 16, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Spiritual care leaders at several prominent addiction treatment centers opened the first full day of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) conference with a resounding reminder that the effects of spiritually based programming are clear and quantifiable. The integration of science and spirituality stands as a prominent theme of NAATP's May 15-17 conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“Almost everyone I've come across in long-term recovery has had a spiritual component in their program,” said James “Wolf” Yoxall, spiritual/wellness director at Pavillon in North Carolina. Yoxall joined leaders in six other centers for a May 16 morning panel discussion of how and why spirituality is a component of best-practice addiction care.

However, highlighting why there remains a need for such an educational session, the director of spiritual care at Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania also pointed out that despite the historical underpinnings of spirituality in addiction treatment, other branches of healthcare have arguably done a better job of defining best practices in spiritually based services.

“Oddly in our industry we've had an absence of standards,” said Caron's Jack Abel, MDiv., comparing addiction treatment unfavorably with the more standardized approach to spiritually based service in end-of-life care in hospital settings.

Spiritual components of programs

The programming at Caron, Pavillon and the five other facilities represented on the Monday panel (Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, CeDAR, Rosecrance Health Network, Sundown M Ranch and Harbor Hall) all involves several critical spiritually based components. All of the panelists said their facilities conduct a spiritual assessment of patients, with some using a combination of survey and narrative elements in their evaluation. Yoxall and Abel said their centers generally prefer to conduct that assessment somewhere in the range of day 3 to 7 of treatment.

Most of the centers offer spirituality groups, opportunities for one-on-one time with a chaplain, and optional weekly non-denominational services. Rosecrance's offerings include a grief and loss support group and a vicarious trauma support group for first responders in its Florian program, said Meridith Graham, MDiv, MSW, the Illinois-based organization's chaplain.

Graham cited data collected by Rosecrance, stating that even for patients who entered treatment with resistance about exploring spirituality, more than 86% reported beginning spiritual practices post-treatment.

Yoxall offered a primer on brain science, discussing how meditation and prayer demonstrate specific effects on brain processes. “Meditation is about getting quiet, which is something that most addicts aren't good at,” he said. “I spend a lot of time having my patients sit under trees.”

The panelists all have served as members of the two-year-old Spiritual Care Addiction Treatment Professionals (SCATP) association, devoted to establishing guidelines for spiritual care in addiction treatment programs. Several mentioned that patients of their facilities have often said that spirituality either was a critical missing element of past treatment experiences or was a factor in why they could not sustain recovery over the long term.

However, “We know that in some centers, because of the cost of treatment in some cases, people who had spiritual [care] jobs are no longer employed,” Abel said.

Several of the opening comments of NAATP executive director Marvin Ventrell focused on the opportunity the field has if it achieves true integration of the power of neuroscience and spirituality. “If we remain separate camps, that's not how the industry is going to evolve,” said Ventrell. “It's ignorant to do that.”