Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Exploring the Downstream Effects of Silence Around Religion and Spirituality in Counseling Training Programs

Clinical Impact Statement: This article is intended to challenge the norm of silence around religious/spiritual identity discussion that results from a bias of counseling psychology training programs/faculty toward liberally oriented cultural identities.

My name is Erin, and I am working towards my doctorate degree in counseling psychology. I was drawn to this field because of my interest in the complex identities that shape the human experience. Each identity we hold creates a unique perspective through which we view the world. In some aspects, our identities are easily celebrated. Sometimes they are silenced. I have experienced a silencing of certain aspects of my identities dependent upon the context I find myself in. In particular, my identity as a religious individual has led to a dissonance between myself and my work. It feels as though there are certain spaces not necessarily conducive to a full disclosure of that invisible status. My guess is that this experience is more common than previously thought.

My hope in writing this paper is to engage the division in productive dialogue about the education, training, and therapeutic approach to religious, spiritual, and secular identities. In reviewing the literature and conversing with colleagues, it appears as though the ball is being dropped in this area. I hope to call attention to the disconnect between what is modeled versus what is asserted as an appropriate multicultural orientation.

I wanted to begin by sharing my personal narrative and the questions driving my curiosity for this topic. I identify as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e. Mormon, LDS). Being from a small town in Idaho, most people I associated with were also members, the major exception being my teachers. It was in seventh grade that I discovered the palpable tension around that identity. While the majority of my town had been uplifted and connected through their membership, many had been spurned. I quickly picked up on the notion that it was easier to be Mormon in certain spaces over others. There were moments when it was empowering to share my beliefs, and there were instances when it did not feel good to admit, but my understanding of the greater forces at play was in its infancy.

When I graduated from high school, most of my peers enrolled in church-affiliated institutions or served proselytizing missions. I did not. I left to attend school in Cleveland, Ohio where I was one of two Mormon undergraduates. My first few interactions in college taught me that most people did not know what a Mormon was. They did not carry the assumptions or opinions I had learned to dodge growing up. I had the opportunity to take control of the narrative and introduce this aspect of my identity without all of the associated animosity. But I was still cautious. I was still hesitant to bring my full self into the room out of fear – fear that within the walls of a liberal university, my identification with a conservative religion would diminish the value of my contributions. I learned that this affiliation within the institution of higher education did not lend power in light of it being a privileged, Christian identity.

After graduation, I returned home to Idaho to prepare applications for graduate school. Within a year, I was accepted into a counseling psychology program in Salt Lake City, Utah, the epicenter of the LDS faith. After so many years of getting to introduce and define my faith, I was back where everyone knows what a Mormon is and almost everyone has an opinion about it. In Utah, religion is salient and tangible. Membership in the LDS is the overwhelming majority and can be found at the pinnacles of power. Utah is a place where the lines between church and state are increasingly blurred, where religion can weave its way into nearly every conversation. Despite the overwhelming influence of the church across most domains, higher education is still firmly planted in liberal soil.

When I began my Ph.D. program, I encountered what I can only describe as a light switch effect. I experienced going from full disclosure of my affiliation, surrounded by individuals who shared that identity, to total concealment. Because of its pervasiveness, identifying as LDS within a liberal program felt sabotaging. I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not experience blatant hostility from my faculty or peers, but I was still aware of the potential costs connected to sharing that identity. I did not want the assumptions associated with that status to be placed on me, so I remained silent in conversations around that topic. I was afraid that in owning that identity, others would believe me to be close-minded and ignorant. What I observed was a relative silence around religious and spiritual (R/S) identities within classes and faculty interactions. I attributed this silence to the relative ease with which religion entangled itself into most conversations and policies outside of school, so perhaps it did not have a place here. Therefore, I chose to hold my identity close and mostly concealed.

At the end of my first semester, I found myself on the receiving end of a religious microaggression, named as one by the person who committed it, my professor. It feels odd to claim experiencing a microaggression since my identity falls within the Christian majority. Nonetheless, it was one. When my professor discovered I was Mormon, I was met with shock and silence. Her reaction reinforced why I had refrained from fully revealing that identity. I was worried that I would be asked to choose either secularity or religiosity, convinced that an integration of these two identities was impossible. I felt terrified and completely convinced that I would be seen differently for my beliefs. I am happy to share that I was wrong.

From that encounter, my professor and I began exploring the conversation around R/S identities in counseling psychology training programs. Through her, I was connected to an academic who is actively studying this phenomenon. During our conversations, I discovered that my experience was not unique. Instead, it was a frequent occurrence across many institutions. This sparked an interest in understanding how individuals, perhaps with different backgrounds, navigate similar situations. What is the cost of students’ identity concealment as future therapy providers? What are the upstream effects resulting in the modeling and instruction students receive around this identity status?

It is evident that the R/S identities individuals hold are not as readily integrated into the training program experience. Just as we are challenged to think critically about other identities, I think there is also a need to think critically and holistically about R/S identities. I recognize that a host of other invisible identities are in a similar position. The constraints that training programs face are real. It is not possible to devote adequate attention to each and every identity status our clients will hold. As such, I want to specifically focus on R/S identities and incite meaningful conversation around our field’s current approach to them.

From a historical standpoint, psychology as a field has pathologized religion, especially as it worked for recognition as a scientific discipline (Haug, 1998). In a survey assessing religiosity of university and college professors, psychologists were found to be the least likely to believe in God or endorse religious adherence (Gross & Simmons, 2007). The emphasis on being scientific may have created the resistance toward the explicit integration of R/S identities within the training framework (Coon, 1992; Miller & Thoresen, 2003). However, Gallup polls from 1992 to 2012 support a widespread religious affiliation in America. Results indicate that anywhere from 79-88% of Americans assert that religion is either “important” or “very important” to them (Gallup, 2012). While 75% of Americans report that their religion influences their approach to life, only 35% of psychologists surveyed agreed (Delaney et al., 2007). In particular, research by Hathaway et al. (2004) indicates that psychologists discuss religion and spirituality with less than 30% of their clients. This discrepancy in importance suggests that R/S issues may be underexplored within the therapeutic setting.

In light of the importance religion and spirituality have in the lives of the general population, it feels imperative that therapists feel confident in reflecting and understanding the R/S factors at play in a client’s life and how they influence their worldview. Therapists have a responsibility to help clients build awareness around the complex intersection of their various identities and their well-being (Aponte, 1996; Hoffman et al., 2005). However, Schulte et al. (2002) found that although trainees are empathetic toward the importance of R/S for their clients, they report feeling incompetent in addressing R/S topics with them. Furthermore, in a sample of psychologists from APA Divisions 12, 36, and 45, Crook-Lyon et al. (2012) report that 76% of psychologists feel that R/S is inadequately addressed. Furthermore, Schulte et al. (2002) reported that 82% of training directors report that their programs do not sufficiently address this identity status. These findings speak to an institutional failure in trainee preparation around clients' religious and spiritual identities.

While several studies have shown the importance religion and spirituality have within clients’ lives, there appears to be a gap in the way training programs include R/S identities within their framework. This gap appears to stem from an intergenerational cycle of avoidance around the topic. What is feeding this cycle is the perpetual lack of training in this area. Due to their own lack of training, faculty and supervisors may feel as ill-equipped and uncomfortable as their students around engaging in R/S discussions (Magoldi-Dopman, 2014). This made me curious about the type of instruction and modeling my peers and I are receiving from faculty both within and outside of the classroom setting. If training directors are indicating lack of adequate coverage on this topic, what is contributing to the hesitance around greater R/S inclusion?

A study by Owen and colleagues (2014) found that for clients with high religious commitment, therapist’s cultural humility was positively associated with therapy outcomes. For clients where R/S identities were less salient, no association was found between their perception of the therapist's cultural humility and treatment outcomes. A parallel process may exist within training programs. Similar to the therapeutic setting, the salience of different identities may contribute to fluctuation in the amount of attention given to various identity groups within training programs. For secular students, the gap in training attending to R/S identities may not be seen as problematic. The need for greater training in this area may not be viewed as necessary compared to increasing training across other identity groups. For students who do identify as religious, however, the silence around R/S identities may communicate a variety of messages. This relative silence may indicate that the topics of religion and spirituality are inappropriate (Bartoli, 2007; Miller, 2003). Additionally, students may develop the perception that R/S identities are less important when conceptualizing and working with clients (Saunders, 2014). Last of all, the tone and context through which R/S identities enter class discussions may impart the belief that students should conceal their religious affiliation (Magoldi-Dopman, 2014). The downstream effects of student concealment may prove to be an interesting contribution to the literature in this area.

This last concept leaves me with several questions, potential points to explore next. As we know, facilitating therapist self-awareness is crucial; therefore, what consequences arise if students choose to conceal their invisible identities that may be in conflict with the environment around them? How do training programs create a culture where identity exploration actively occurs in classroom discussion, supervision, and daily interactions with peers and faculty? How do we confront the cycle of silence and discomfort in discussing R/S identities to ensure better modeling in conversations about R/S topics? While religious and spiritual salience varies within training programs, how do we as a field better prepare trainees to work with peers and clients for which R/S salience is prominent? I believe there is plenty of work to be done in this area and hopefully something fruitful can come from sharing my thoughts and my story here.

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Cite This Article

Buttars, E. M., & Drinane, J. (2020). Exploring the downstream effects of silence around religion and spirituality in counseling training programs. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 55(2), 13-17.


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