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Taking the Spiritual Road to Better Health

When he is not pursuing doctoral studies at the UW, Devon Berry is a professor of nursing at a small university in Ohio, teaching undergraduate nursing students about mental health. It was in doing research in preparation for his doctorate that the issue of spirituality kept coming up. "There is a lot of interest in spirituality and mental health now, especially with the events of the past year," says Berry. "But it was happening before 9/11, too." Berry believes that "what is going on in the heart and the head" is an intrinsic part of good health. "A person is more than just what we see," he explains. "Mental health is looking at the other side of the person, that which cannot always be seen."

Working as a nurse at UWMC has given him daily examples of the need to help patients "assign meaning" to life’s events. "When someone is recovering from a life-threatening situation, the meaning they attach to the illness or accident has a profound impact on their sense of well-being," Berry explains. Patients can see themselves as helpless victims of fate, as someone who has been given a message about changing something in their life, or as someone who is fortunate that their life was spared. Berry hopes that nurses can be prepared to address the spiritual component of health care, so that they can help patients find meaning in what has happened to them, and also find the strength to deal with it.

"Everyone is spiritual," says Berry, who is in his second year of doctoral studies. "Just because you do not go to church or believe in God does not disqualify you."

Berry’s research focus is on the protective role of spirituality with young adults, especially with depression. "If we can prevent young people from becoming depressed, we would be so much ahead of the game," he explains, citing a World Health Organization report that identifies mental health problems as the second leading cause of disease burden in market economies today. He notes that the first episode of depression often shows up in adolescence. Partially supported in his studies by the Katherine Hoffman Fellowship for Nursing Science, Berry hopes his research can show that there is a positive relationship between spirituality and mental health, and that nursing will come to address this as part of its holistic approach to health care. "It’s a complex issue," says Berry. "But life is complex, too."