Today, conversations about women’s health overwhelmingly focus on the importance of physical health, clinical interventions and access to medical care. Yet research suggests that optimal health – true thriving – requires a holistic approach that satisfies the physical, mental, social and spiritual needs of each person.
People suffer harm if even one of these four pillars of well-being is neglected, yet more than 90% of health care expenditures around the world treat solely their physical symptoms. Hospitals, procedural interventions and medical access help women survive, yes, but they can’t make women thrive.
Over the last two decades, a significant decline in spirituality – both in the United States and around the world – has created a crisis threatening women’s ability to achieve optimal health. To solve the declining spirituality crisis, we must first raise awareness about the importance of one’s spiritual life and the negative effects of its lack.
Spirituality also improves psychological and social health, thereby decreasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation that can lead to a heightened risk of heart attack and strokes and decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease.
What’s more, religious communities can support better population-wide health outcomes in areas of the world where medical infrastructure and communication is underdeveloped. In nations where little else can directly reach populations suffering from poverty, neglect, widespread disease and even governmental collapse, religious communities fill the gap and their impact endures.
Religious leaders also enjoy a very high level of trust from the communities in which they live and serve. Across 34 African countries, religious leaders were more trusted than any other public leaders — and that trend isn’t an isolated one. Faith leaders have helped foster better health outcomes in the past, and they can be enlisted to do so in the future.
In the course of my work leading the Institute for Women’s Health, I often travel abroad to advocate for the advancement of women’s optimal health and see firsthand the ways in which a robust, well-integrated faith community can explicitly improve a woman’s physical well-being. It can become a thriving logistical hub, where resources get distributed and mutual support can be offered and received. And where an emphasis is placed on the intrinsic value of the most vulnerable women and girls who look to their faith for what is, at times, their only source of hope and peace.
A robust, well-integrated faith community can explicitly improve a woman’s physical well-being. (iStock)
Still, despite overwhelming evidence that we ought to take spiritual health seriously, we largely do not. Similar to the way we once discounted the importance of mental health, we give little weight to our spiritual lives – naively (or blindly) believing that the quality of a person’s physical health and survival is enough. It isn’t. We must begin to more deeply consider that the mere physical well-being of a woman – of any person – is an unacceptable metric of success.