Religious rehab sparks alcoholic's complaint

A Winnipeg man who has struggled with alcoholism for decades says he has filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission over the lack of a treatment program that's free of religious or spiritual elements.
Rob Johnstone says he hopes his complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission forces the province to fund a treatment program devoid of spirituality or religion. ((CBC))
A Winnipeg man who has struggled with alcoholism for decades says he has filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission over the lack of a treatment program that's free of religious or spiritual elements.

Rob Johnstone said he has battled alcoholism for 40 years and can't find a treatment program that doesn't rely on religion or spirituality as part of the recovery process.


Addiction rehab and spirituality: Can the two be separated?

"I should not be forced to participate in someone else's religious beliefs. I shouldn't have to add to mine," said Johnstone, who added he has been an alcoholic for 40 years.

"I have my own beliefs and I'm happy with them."

Johnstone said his faith-neutral stance to his own treatment prompted him to be dismissed from an intense residential 12-step program at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM), a provincially-run rehabilitation initiative.

He said he was encouraged by the AFM to find strength in God or a higher power in order to recover, but couldn't stomach it and was asked to leave.

Johnstone said after scouting around for another program that was free of spirituality, he said he couldn't find one — despite a few offering what they describe as "faith-free" options.

Programs offered by Manitoba's Native Addictions Council and the Behavioural Health Foundation each contained spiritual elements like aboriginal drum ceremonies, Johnstone said.

And while in treatment at the latter program, he was approached to see if he was interested in attending services at a Christian church in Winnipeg.

Johnstone said the presence of spiritual elements in rehab programs exploit vulnerable addicts.

"We get involved in mood-altering substances and mind-altering substances," Johnstone said. "That means the person is very vulnerable when they come in and that person should not be subjected to someone else's religion."

He's hoping his human rights complaint pushes the province to create a treatment program that's free of spiritual or religious elements. The commission wouldn't comment on the status of his complaint.

Spiritual element necessary

However, officials at the AFM remain resolute that recovery relies on at least some element of spiritual — but not necessarily religious — belief. The AFM is not affiliated with any organized faith.

And just as a person's overall well-being depends on their physical health, it's the same for spiritual considerations, said Laura Goossen, director of the AFM's Winnipeg region.

Laura Goossen of the AFM says spirituality cannot be separated from recovery. ((CBC))
"Spirituality … is part and parcel of everyone's life. For some people, their spirituality is more important than others, but it's a dimension of all of our lives as human beings," Goossen said.

"When they're in … programming, we do want them to go look for a grain of something that will be helpful for them and disregard the rest," Goossen added.

Other people who work with addicts hold a similar view.

Maj. Karen Hoeft of the Salvation Army in Winnipeg suggested it's nearly impossible to separate addictions treatment from spirituality.

Hoeft was not speaking to Johnstone's case but rather in general terms.

In many cases, the genesis of treatment programs came from faith-based groups that government later stepped in to help fund, she said.

"If you talk to the concept of spirituality, most social recovery models have a level of spirituality," Hoeft said. "Really, spirituality is getting in touch with who you are."

Research shows that the spiritual, holistic-based approach to treatment works, she added.

Spirituality boosts effectiveness of treatment: Manitoba Health

A spokeswoman for Manitoba Health echoed the view that spirituality and treatment are inseparable, but said none of the 12 provincially-funded treatment programs requires clients to belong to a specific religion.

"Some degree of a spiritual component is common as these types of programs are believed to be more effective," the spokeswoman said.

"It is important to recognize that spirituality is not the same as religion. People in recovery tend to benefit from self-reflection, examining their lives, where they've come from, who they are and where they're going."

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the government said it spent more than $22 million on the 12 programs, but would not break the total down into specifics for each program.