Perspectives on Spirituality in Speech and Language Therapy

Interview with Dr. Sophie MacKenzie, Senior Lecturer in Speech and Language Therapy at AECC University College.

Dr. Sophie MacKenzie joined AECC University College in January 2023. She qualified as a Speech and Language Therapist in 1990, specialising in working with adults living with neurological conditions such as stroke, head injury, dementia, and head and neck cancer.

She left clinical work and began lecturing full-time in 2010, going on to work at the University of Greenwich, Canterbury Christ Church University, and City, University of London. In 2017, Sophie completed her PhD on the role of spirituality in Speech and Language Therapy.

Sophie recently co-edited a book on the subject, entitled: Perspectives on Spirituality in Speech and Language Therapy, published by specialist Human Communication Science publisher J&R Press. Sophie collaborated with fellow Speech and Language Therapist, Katharyn Mumby, on the book.

Sophie tells us more about the book and its central theme of recognising a person’s spirituality as an important factor in Speech and Language Therapy treatment:

Spirituality in Speech and Language Therapy

“When I was working in hospitals, we focused on helping people with communication difficulties to express their basic needs. This might be: can they ask for a drink? Can they say when they're in pain? Towards the end of my clinical career, I became more and more interested in deeper concerns that people might want to communicate. 

“Suffering a major traumatic life event such as a stroke must provoke some deep and complex existential questions, yet were SLTs equipped or indeed willing to tackle these in therapy?

“That led me to think about how we might be able to encourage people to talk about issues that were more nebulous. I wanted to think about the spiritual needs of a patient and to help them express more abstract thoughts.   

“I wanted to help people to address wider issues, like the fact that they might not be able to access the things that used to give their lives meaning and purpose. That might be religion, or it might be spirituality – the two are linked but not necessarily the same things. 

“For some patients, it might be worrying them that they are no longer able to access aspects of their religion that are important to them, such as reading a holy text. For other people, it might be not being able to attend their reading group, or go to the opera: anything at all that gave their life meaning pre-stroke.

“There are lots of different definitions of spirituality and of spirituality in healthcare. Some people believe that it’s actually counterproductive to try and define it, as spirituality means something different to every person.

“However, most of the definitions that you see in the literature are around meaning, purpose, love, transcendence, and connection.”

Spirituality and Health Care

“That led me to think about spirituality and health care. And when I started looking into it, I realised that actually Speech and Language Therapists had some catching up to do.

“Nurses have been thinking about the spirituality of their patients for at least the last 30 years: the idea that if someone’s spiritual needs are addressed, that can have a direct impact on their physical health and their mental wellbeing.

“If we're treating people and not taking their spiritual needs into consideration, then we’re really missing something important.. A person’s religion or spirituality can be central to who they are – and if we’re planning interventions that don’t take this into account, we’re not going to be treating patients effectively; we may even be doing them a disservice.”

Earlier Research

“My contribution to this book is based on the work that I did for my PhD, which focused on constructing stories of spirituality for people with expressive aphasia. Aphasia is a language problem, caused by damage to the language areas of the brain.

“For my PhD, I interviewed eight people with aphasia: five of whom had been living with the condition for a number of years, and three who were in an acute hospital setting and had just had strokes. 

“I divided the thesis into different stories: each person had their own story and I did very unstructured interviews with them about what they understood by spirituality and whether they were still able to express their spirituality.

“I then interviewed five members of a multi-disciplinary team working with these people: a Speech and Language Therapist, Physiotherapist, Occupational Therapist, a Lay Chaplain and a Nurse, about how they saw their role in terms of people's spirituality. I asked them if they were happy to talk about these sorts of issues with patients with aphasia.”

Person-Centred Approach

“For me, it’s about how we approach the patient, regardless of what’s wrong with them. It’s trying to see the client as a whole person, rather than focusing on a particular speech or language problem.

“This person might have speech difficulties, but they are also a husband and a father and a grandfather. They love going to the opera and get meaning and purpose from gardening. It’s taking that kind of detail into account when planning interventions which ensures we are holistic in our approach.” 

You can find out more about our MSc Speech and Language Therapy course (Pre-Reg) here.

Above: Dr. Sophie MacKenzie