Medicine, Spirituality, and the Med Student: How a Spiritual Outlook Can Support Mental Wellness in Medical School

Photo Credit: David Pierre, Jr.

Graciano Petersen
MA, Tulane University

Medicine and religion have a shared history. In many ancient cultures, the leading religious figure was also the man of medicine. As medicine began to evolve into more of a science, the two fields became more disparate. More recently, however, religion has begun to converge with medicine once again through strengthening the focus on spirituality in medicine.

It is important to point out a fact that has been discussed in JSNMA before: spirituality is not religion. Spirituality is a free-form exploration used in discovering the core of being while religion is a structured and taught system of belief. This is pointed out to many students per year at the over 100 medical schools in the US that have incorporated a course on spirituality into their curricula. Such courses typically concentrate on the physician’s sensitivity to patient spiritual beliefs in the practice of medicine. But, while students are taught to be conscious of patient’s faith, many struggle to find the  time to observe their own convictions.

Med students spend several hours per day becoming proficient in the human body. This involves deep study of the body’s various systems, gaining knowledge of genetic disorders and possible pathogens, as well as becoming informed on effective treatment protocols. On tough days, the information a med student is responsible for knowing can seem as vast as our universe. The physical body is the major focus of medical education, so the little spare time that med students have, tends to address the mind or the soul.

Although free time is limited, it is important with the pressures of medical school, that students maintain a healthy and focused mind. Some students choose faith to help them maintain a biopsychosocial balance.  They accomplish this in several time-conscious ways including a little prayer before quick meals and meditation before bed. Combining faith-based activities with social events allow students to observe their beliefs and relax all at once. Having faith allows the observers to keep their minds in good condition during the mentally draining school days.  In many cases,  medical students’ studies are improved by the time they allot for personal reflection. While time does not always permit the full observance of their beliefs, a little spiritual contemplation can go a long a way in maintaining the perspective they feel is necessary to conserve the equilibrium between their minds, bodies, and souls.

The mind-body-soul connection is touted in the media, but also supported in literature, as an important determinate in health and fitness. With that in mind, it can be seen why it is important that med students make double use of what they may learn in spirituality course. Students can use the information from courses dedicated to spirituality to not only be more sensitive to faith in patient treatment, but also to improve their own mental well-being. Taking the time to discover what is missing from your weekly routine may mean the difference between success and failure in medical school. When the days get tough, it might not hurt to have a little faith.

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  1. Bob Ellal says:

    Qigong helped me beat four bouts of “terminal” bone lymphoma in the early nineties. It’s also helped me manage the pain–physical and emotional–wrought by the cancer in the years since. Qigong also is an excellent stress reducer; after consistent practice life’s “slings and arrows” bounce off one like pebbles plinking off a breastplate. Clear 14 years and still practicing every day!