Integrating Spirituality Into the Nursing Curriculum

Integrating Spirituality Into the Nursing Curriculum

Image of a nursing student

A first-of-its-kind course was developed in fall 2020 by a GSEAP faculty member specifically for nursing students, to tackle issues of spirituality, grief, and mental health.

As a nursing educator, I’ve always believed that nurses can’t provide spiritual care to the fullest extent unless they’ve done spiritual education.

— Eileen O’Shea, DNP, APRN, Director of the Kanarek Center for Palliative Care

Last summer, when Maggie Breitenbach ’22 saw an email about a new nursing course, “Integrating Spirituality into Nursing,” being offered to juniors and seniors, she didn’t hesitate to sign up.

“I knew the course would be important since nurses give spiritual care as well as physical,” she said. “It helped me realize the importance of my presence in the room with a patient, just sitting there or holding a hand. I learned assessment tools to determine whether a patient wanted to talk about spirituality, and what wording to use. Sometimes, it’s just enough to give them space to talk.”

The curriculum included readings and lectures on mindfulness, meditation, grief, and cross-cultural sensitivity. Students also spent time discussing self-care and its importance, especially in times of crisis such as the pandemic. Small group discussions allowed students to dive into the topics further, and reflection papers echoed the difficult situations they were experiencing in their clinical rotations.

Faculty member Tracey Robert, PhD, LPC professor of Counselor Education in GSEAP, has always maintained that spirituality is integral to the counseling process, and has for years been teaching a graduate certificate program that she developed based on her research integrating spirituality and religion into counseling. So it was only natural that when Dean Meredith Wallace Kazer, PhD, APRN, FAAN and faculty at the Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing & Health Studies wanted to create a course on integrating spirituality into nursing, they would lean on Dr. Robert for expertise. 

The result of the collaboration between Dr. Robert, Eileen O’Shea, DNP, APRN, director of the Kanarek Center for Palliative Care, and the Rev. Denis Donoghue, S.J., director of the Murphy Center for Ignatian Spirituality, was an interdisciplinary course that pulls on tools and resources from multiple sources. An essential part of the course: one-on-one sessions with a spiritual advisor every other week. Classes were co-taught by Fr. Denis and Dr. Robert.

Besides the physical care they provide to their patients, nurses are tasked with providing spiritual assessments; that is, listening to patients’ concerns, asking where they find comfort, and determining whether or not they would benefit from pastoral care, said Dr. Robert.

Yet a referral to pastoral care doesn’t mean the patient’s needs have been satisfied. “The nurse is the one who gets to know the patient. It’s the nurse who spends the most time at the bedside, who is familiar to the family,” said Dr. Robert. During the pandemic, this was especially evident as even close family members were barred from hospitals. For these reasons, much of this care comes from nurses, and they need to be prepared to face difficult questions and emotions from patients and family members.

The course, which will be offered again in September, is focused on helping the nurse as well as the patient, preparing them for the profession of nursing, explained Dr. O’Shea. “As a nursing educator, I’ve always believed that nurses can’t provide spiritual care to the fullest extent unless they’ve done spiritual education,” she said. This past year especially, “we see nurses close to burnout. If you, as a nurse, are struggling internally, your coping mechanisms are fewer and the profession is going to lose you.”

The individualized sessions with a spiritual advisor were key to helping students strengthen their own interior spiritual lives. “Nursing is a vocation that brings in the big questions of life and death, and a course like this helps them process these issues. They saw it as fertile soil for their own growth and well-being,” said Fr. Denis, adding, “All the spiritual directors loved working with these students because they were so committed to their work.”

Students found the class very timely, since they were going into hospitals and nursing homes during the pandemic. “They wrote about some very difficult situations in their papers, but they also wrote that the course allowed them to dig deeper into their own relationship with God,” said Dr. O’Shea.

Breitenbach recently finished her med-surg rotation, and was able to use a great deal of what she learned during that time. “Being present and allowing the patient or family the space to go over memories, to talk about their fears or death, was one of the most important takeaways from the class. Dr. O’Shea also talked a lot about spirituality in children and different ways to look for that, like having them draw pictures,” she recalled. “It’s such important material for delivering holistic care.” 

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