Two important facts about Peter Gilbert: he is a Roman Catholic, and he likes to run. “It’s something about getting out in the open air, and about friendships with people,” he says. “Psychologists would probably say it is about flow, and they are probably right – you get into a rhythm when you’re running with others. You’re sort of connected with nature, perhaps with God.”
His belief and exercising may seem like disparate facts, but Gilbert’s work on social work and spirituality has required him to have a definition of spirituality that covers much more than organised religion.
Despite that broad definition, meaning his multiple jobs cover a vast area – from disseminating knowledge about faith-based practice to putting a human face on social care – there are few others working in the same field. That goes some way to explaining why Gilbert is doing so much. He is the National Institute of Mental Health’s (Nimhe) national project lead on spirituality and mental health, professor of social work and spirituality at Staffordshire University, and is now taking up a visiting professorship in the same role at the University of Worcester.
The work with the universities is intended to convince social workers to consider their own spirituality and how it relates to their work. “The only way to get into this area – and I’ve said this to mental health trusts and social service departments too – is to let students and staff get into it themselves before you can expect them to explore this with other people,” he says.
Gilbert is careful with his words – a sign of how sensitive this field is – but he says that conflating religion and spirituality goes some way to getting to grips with belief. “I think social workers are resistant to exploring [belief] because of suspicion of organised religion,” he says. “As a professional you need some distance, but I think we should be sharing a common ground and common humanity with those we work with.
“I’d say everyone has a spiritual dimension but you might well not recognise it. It might be very broad dimensions, so it’s getting people to think about what’s useful to them. It is something about the motivational force, something about the transcendent – something beyond ourselves that keeps us going.”
This is a necessarily vague starting point Gilbert advises asking questions from a starting point of “empathetic ignorance” – considering what a user says and making no assumptions about someone’s faith. He says this is best approached by using open questions to find out what makes people tick and to build something useful from whatever emerges – be it jogging or Judaism – rather than trying to start from a religious starting point.
He acknowledges that some religious people may find it offensive to find themselves within the necessarily umbrella term of spirituality and says that religion can “either be a climbing frame or a straitjacket. In a crisis, to say you must be very religious or not religious at all doesn’t help people.”
Gilbert has become something of an expert on humanising social work and mental health services. His experience working in the mental health and learning disabilities fields included heading Worcestershire Council’s social services department for four years. He joined Nimhe just after 9/11 to work on social care, but in addition connected with faith groups. He has since organised annual multi-faith symposiums on mental health.
This latter role has been useful in advising the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Trust on spirituality. Although it takes time to make good relations with faith groups, his efforts are starting to pay off. “Some religions have a stigma about mental health, so we want to break down those barriers. But it’s amazing how open they’ve been,” Gilbert says. “We’ve worked with recently-appointed imams, and Sikhs especially have said they wanted stronger ties with the mental health trusts.”
Working with faith groups, he says, is the only way to deal with religion, rather than trying to ignore the topic altogether. “It’s about making a connection. It’s really assisting them to look at what mental health services can offer them, and for us to know what we can offer the community.”