When people ask me what I do for a living, I like to explain to them that I have two jobs. For paid work, I am an outpatient mental health therapist. But, when I am not busy doing that work, I serve my local community as a spiritual leader. Occasionally, those two jobs merge together: I begin seeing a client who is Pagan like myself, and interested in receiving faith-based therapy services.
The idea of faith-based therapy can bring about a number of reactions. In this blog post I hope to address some questions individuals might have about faith-based therapy, and emphasize why it is important to have this service as an option for those who wish to utilize it.
Is it ethical to mix clinically-based, well-researched therapy techniques with religious or spiritual content?
One thing I love about being a clinical social worker in specific is that since my first-ever class in graduate school, I’ve been taught to view other people from a biopsychosocial perspective. Meaning, the mental health of a person doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Mental health is influenced by every dimension of a person’s life, from how their body functions to the quality of their relationships with others.
This philosophy acknowledges that in order to get the best therapy results, it is necessary to take a holistic view of a client: and that includes, where applicable, how they view the world through the lens of religion/spirituality.
There is also not as wide of a divide between clinical therapy modalities and spiritual ideas as you might expect. As demonstrated in “Trauma-Focused ACT” by Russ Harris, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which has been backed by hundreds of scientific studies, draws some inspiration from East Asian spirituality and philosophy. Internal Family Systems (IFS), another therapy modality which is gaining popularity, can also contain a significant spiritual component (see “Self-Therapy” by Jay Earley).
Isn’t ‘faith-based therapy’ just a euphemism for Christian therapy?
I’ve definitely seen the phrase used that way, but it should carry more general meaning than that. Those of us in the United States, no matter our faith or absence thereof, must contend with living in a majority-Christian country that was established with Christian ideals.
Particularly in regions of the South, Christianity is often assumed, and overall it is not difficult to find Christian therapists. I am a firm believer that individuals of any faith deserve to have access to therapists who understand that dimension of their life.
As a representative of a non-majority religion, I hope that my presence as a therapist who offers faith-based services will help change the overall culture in that direction.
Do people actually like it and benefit from it?
Yes. And while it is not my place to share my clients’ stories, I can share my own. My own personal therapist is also a spiritual person.
She is the first therapist I have ever loved working with, and it is largely due to her capacity to understand the meaningful spiritual experiences I have and how they positively shape my life.
I appreciate that I don’t have to explain to her what being in a polytheistic religion is like, the intent behind the holidays that I observe, or the societal difficulties I face as a Pagan person.
I have had clients express similar sentiments of appreciation that they can bring their “whole selves” into the therapy session, including their spirituality.
The ability to share your life with those who live a similar experience is powerful across all identities, not just religion: race, gender identity, orientation, and even profession.
I’m not religious or spiritual – how could I feel comfortable seeing a therapist who provides faith-based services?
I consider faith-based counseling to be one tool in my well-supplied therapy toolbox. Not every tool is going to be adequate to work in every situation – I wouldn’t utilize a faith-based approach with a non-religious, non-spiritual client just as I wouldn’t use a saw to tighten a screw.
Pragmatism aside, my core value as a therapist is the agency of my clients. Regardless of their affiliations, if a client of mine was not interested in discussing religious/spiritual content during a session together, I would not discuss it. This applies to any modality in my toolkit.
I am also a certified hypnotherapist, but I would never begin using that technique with a client without first clearly describing my intentions and receiving enthusiastic consent.
In short, I consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to provide faith-based services to my clients. I believe that the work that I do aligns with therapy values of holistic care and respect for the entire individual. I hope to see the profession grow to make faith-based mental health care open to all different faiths, and I love being a part of that development myself.