Psychotherapy Articles

Psychotherapy Articles

Addressing Religion and Spirituality in Psychotherapy: Why it Should be in Graduate Training Programs

There has been a recent question in American Psychological Association’s (APA) Monitor on Psychology asking, “Can religion and spirituality have a place in therapy?” (Abrams, 2023). APA’s 2023 President Thema Bryant, PhD, and other mental health professionals believe religion and spirituality have a place in psychotherapy and also agree that clinicians should receive training in religious and spiritual competencies in training programs (Vieten et al., 2023). Discussions surrounding diversity encompass a variety of identity factors that an individual relates to or identifies with. Culture, race, sexual orientation, and other aspects of an individual’s identity help clinicians explore a client’s individual experiences as part of a wider community they identify with. Each aspect of a client’s background informs the way they are present in the world and how the world interacts with them. Spiritual or religious beliefs and practices can impact an individual’s identity development, their worldview, avoidance of risky scenarios, and the ability to cope with a variety of challenges and difficulties (Gall & Guirguis-Younger, 2013; King, 2003; McNamara et al., 2010). Personal faith, which is a concept of faith and spirituality that is more subjective and often deeper than religious affiliation, can be a source of hope for the future and can increase psychological resilience (Tolentino et al., 2022). Therefore, exploring the different systems of a client’s life is crucial to understand the factors that influence how a client presents in the therapy space, and also helps to identify various protective factors that contribute to their overall well-being.

Recently, there has been increased focus in the literature on developing competencies in religion and spirituality (Vieten et al., 2013). However, most psychologists and trainees do not receive training in how to attend to the religious and spiritual domains effectively and ethically (Jafari, 2016). Additionally, research has demonstrated that the primary mode of support in religious and spiritual competencies in training programs is through supervisory consultation and exposure in diversity courses (Jafari, 2016). Due to the limited exposure to religious and spiritual considerations in most training programs, there is a greater need for this to be an area of focus for psychology trainees in order to better understand this aspect of a client’s identity.

It has been an integral part of my training as a clinical psychology doctoral student to be able to embrace religion and spirituality with my clients to meet them where they are and to join them on their journey. In particular, I am frequently reminded of the multitude of ways religion can provide perspective on the world and on their experience. Religion and spirituality can provide clients with a powerful perspective on a relationship with a higher being, the meaning of life, and the significance of the world around them. Similarly, engaging in psychotherapy provides clients the opportunity to examine their way of viewing the world, others around them, and, most importantly, themselves. As I considered the impact of my clients’ spiritual life on their cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal functioning, I was opened to a deeper understanding of how they present to treatment. I gained particular insight into the areas that may inform their suffering, as well as what provides them with a sense of meaning and belonging. Additionally, being sensitive to religion and spirituality as a clinician allows this aspect of a client’s identity to bring unique strengths and an enhanced sense of support into treatment. This provides clients with access to more resources, whether it be spiritual, community-based, or personal coping resources.

As clinicians, reality-checking and cognitive challenging become difficult when we neglect the core beliefs of a client. It has been extremely helpful in my work to understand that religious and spiritual resources can be used to challenge core beliefs. An individual’s view of God or their spiritual wisdom, for example, can be sources for clients to lean on to challenge beliefs that have increased their suffering or have made them feel unworthy or unloved. Additionally, religion and spirituality may be areas of exploration that contribute to negative thoughts and behaviors. For example, some clients may find themselves in a religious environment that does not acknowledge parts of their identity or does not agree with how they express their beliefs. Some may feel lonely practicing their faith when surrounded by co-workers or friends who do not share similar beliefs. By being curious and open to discussing and integrating spirituality and religion into clinical care, we can find out so much about the strengths a client has and the challenges they are experiencing that otherwise may be ignored.

For clinicians who strive to walk with clients through their anxieties, suffering, and pain, meeting them where they are in their spiritual or religious journey can provide an incredible sense of richness and depth to therapeutic relationship. I recall a client I had the privilege of working with that identified as a practicing Muslim who presented with symptoms of depression and anxiety. She felt that her interpersonal relationships were strained throughout her life, leading her to believe that others thought of her as a burden. During our work together, I picked up on her hesitancy to share her religious practices and faith background, so I began to inquire about her faith. This led to conversations about how her faith provides her with a sense of security and community. Her experience with a spiritual and religious life included a rich tradition filled with protective factors, such as reassuring passages and messages, a routine prayer life that provided consistency, and a community of like-minded individuals that decreased feelings of loneliness. If I simply treated her faith background as merely a product of her upbringing and country of origin, I would have missed vital community resources that could have increased resiliency, nurtured a sense of belonging, and provided a sense of purpose in her life.

As we move together in this field toward a deeper appreciation for all aspects of our clients’ identities, I hope that we come to the realization that who we are is not just defined by our race, cultural background, political leanings, or gender identity. The perspectives and beliefs that inform how we live has profound implications in our profession as healers of the human mind and human experience. I included several resources below that were useful during my training experience regarding the integration of religion and spirituality in psychotherapy. Utilizing these resources that recognize the spiritual practices and religious identities of my clients has helped me to understand the intersectionality of emotion, cognition, and behaviors with meaning, purpose, and transcendence. These resources have aided in my understanding of ethical psychological care, including recognizing the limits of my own competencies surrounding spiritual care and how I can be most supportive and effective for my clients.

  • Vitz, P. C., Nordling, W. J., & Titus, C. S. (2020). A Catholic Christian meta-model of the person: Integration with psychology & mental health practice. Divine Mercy University Press.
  • Pargament, K. I., & Exline, J. J. (2022). Working with spiritual struggles in psychotherapy: From research to practice. The Guilford Press.
  • Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol. 1): Context, theory, and research. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14045-000
  • Sandage, S. J., Rupert, D., Stavros, G., & Devor, N. G. (2020). Relational spirituality in psychotherapy: Healing suffering and promoting growth. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000174-000
  • Vieten, C., Scammell, S., Pilato, R., Ammondson, I., Pargament, K. I., & Lukoff, D. (2013). Spiritual and religious competencies for psychologists. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5(3), 129–144. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032699
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Juliane Nguyen, M.Psy. is a fourth year doctoral student at Divine Mercy University's Clinical Psychology program. She loves spending time with friends and family, crocheting, and watching a good show. Her clinical interests include working with children, adolescents, and young adult in their identity development and psychological assessments. Her research interests include training, the integration of spirituality and religion in psychotherapy, and the impacts of incarceration.

Cite This Article

Nguyen, J. (2024, June). Addressing religion and spirituality in psychotherapy: Why it should be in graduate programs. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 59(3).

References

Abrams, Z. (2023). Can religion and spirituality have a place in therapy? Experts say yes. Monitor on Psychology, 54(8). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/11/incorporating-religion-spirituality-therapy

Gall, T. L., & Guirguis-Younger, M. (2013). Religious and spiritual coping: Current theory and research. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones (Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol. 1): Context, theory, and research. American Psychological Association

Jafari, S. (2016). Religion and spirituality within counselling/clinical psychology training programmes: A systematic review. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 44(3), 257–267. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069885.2016.1153038

King, P. E. (2003). Religion and identity: The role of ideological, social, and spiritual contexts. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 197–204. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532480XADS0703_11

McNamara, P., Burns, J. P., Johnson, P., & McCorkle, B. H. (2010). Personal religious practice, risky behavior, and implementation intentions among adolescents. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2(1), 30–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017582

Tolentino, J. C., Gjorup, A. L. T., Mello, C. R., de Assis, S. G., Marques, A. C., Filho, Á. do C., Salazar, H. R. M., van Duinkerken, E., Schmidt, S. L., & Frey, R. (2022). Spirituality as a protective factor for chronic and acute anxiety in Brazilian healthcare workers during the Covid-19 outbreak. Plos One, 17(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267556

Vieten, C., Oxhandler, H. K., Pearce, M., Fry, N., Tanega, C., & Pargament, K. (2023). Mental health professionals’ perspectives on the relevance of religion and spirituality to mental health care. BioMed Central (BMC) Psychology, 11(1), 439. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-023-01466-y

Vieten, C., Scammell, S., Pilato, R., Ammondson, I., Pargament, K. I., & Lukoff, D. (2013). Spiritual and religious competencies for psychologists. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5(3), 129–144. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032699

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