Walking the labyrinth: A path for meaning, insight and reflection

At Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care (Southwest Centre) in Elgin County, the unique story of every individual is honoured as care practitioners assist in the journey toward recovery. Part of the St. Joseph’s Health Care London family, Southwest Centre is devoted to caring for people with a mental illness who have also come into contact with the criminal justice system. 

A new study by Lawson Health Research Institute shows that the use of labyrinths contributes to recovery by promoting spiritual self-care, insight development and personal meaning-making reflection. The research was co-authored by Lawson Allied Scientist and Certified Spiritual Care Practitioner at Southwest Centre, Stephen Yeo, along with his colleagues Dr. Clark Patrick Heard and Jared Scott, both Lawson Associate Scientists and Occupational Therapists. 

“Research has demonstrated that labyrinth-walking can result in increased focus and calm, along with a reduction in blood pressure and stress,” explains Yeo. “Additionally, labyrinth-walking is narrative-driven and highly constructivist in nature, which promotes the opportunity for one to critically reflect on his or her unfolding story.”

This can be done in solitude or a trained facilitator can support important narrative reflection and invite opportunities for integration. 

The process of reflecting and making meaning helps individuals to think about what they observed or did, why it mattered and how they might think or act differently based on new knowledge. This allows them to set goals and use what they’ve learned from the past to inform future action, and to consider the real-life implications. 

Participation supports patients as they cope with mental illness, and the impact is magnified for individuals who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. Their experience can increase existential questions along with spiritual pain and distress.  

Even in the most complex and difficult circumstances, walking the labyrinth facilitates a variety of coping approaches including: 

  • stress reduction and mindfulness;
  • understanding one’s awareness of relationship with that which is sacred to them (transcendence) and the environment;
  • development of ongoing personal narrative and meaning-making; and, 
  • kinesthetic prayer and meditation.

Unlike mazes that are like puzzles with many choices of path and direction, labyrinths are created using continuous lines and are easier to navigate with one route to and from the centre. There are two permanent labyrinths at Southwest Centre – one indoors and one outdoors. For the most part, the labyrinths are accessible for self-guided walking and, throughout the year, various group opportunities are scheduled for invited participation. This activity can be continued in the community, as there are labyrinths in various places across the province such as parks, faith communities and other health-care settings. 

“Labyrinth participation supports themes related to hope, coping, resiliency, autonomy – all of which are significant contributors to recovery and the maintenance of well-being. Future research in this area could examine the benefits for different patient populations and also for those who reside in the community.” 

Labyrinths are trans-religious and their application can be beneficial to religious and non-religious participants. They are also easy to maintain and can be installed in a variety of locations. 

Along with his study co-authors, Yeo was honoured with the CASC Group Research Award from the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care. The award recognizes a CASC member who collaborates with other professionals in the research field of spirituality, religion and wellbeing. The recipient supports the core values of professional connection and interdependence, promoting positive relationship with colleagues of various professionals as well as clients.  

“Given that this was my first foray into research at this level, I was very humbled to have been nominated for, and to have received, this award,” says Yeo. “I remain especially grateful to the professional guidance and support of my research colleagues.” 

Walking the Labyrinth: Considering mental health consumer experience, meaning making, and the illumination of the sacred in forensic mental health setting” was published in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling. This study is believed to be a first of its kind in a forensic mental health care facility.

Photo of indoor labyrinth at Southwest Centre
Left: Photo of the indoor labyrinth at the Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care.