The importance that is placed on spirituality in counseling has changed a great deal over the years. When I went to graduate school in Germany many years ago, it was frowned upon to even mention spiritual or religious beliefs. They were supposed to belong to a different part of a client’s life and had nothing to do with the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that should be addressed in counseling.
This opinion had shifted to some degree when I went back to school about 15 years ago, this time in the United States. We were taught then that religion was an important part of a person’s life and should receive some attention during the counseling session, but it was still a somewhat “taboo” topic.
When I actually started working with clients, I barely ever touched on the issue of religion. Not being religious myself, and being fairly inexperienced, I wasn’t able to appreciate the importance faith and spirituality can have for people. I also had no idea how to bring up the subject and clients hardly ever mentioned it themselves, probably because I didn’t provide a safe space for them to do so.
This changed when I worked mostly with adolescents. Religion was a recurrent theme for them and their families, albeit not in the way I had expected. Mostly, teenagers complained that their parents made them go to church even though they hated it. And parents were concerned because the kids didn’t want to go to church or behaved in ways that violated their religious rules.
Over time, and with more experience, I was able to stir the conversation away from complaining to more productive thoughts of the meaning of life, belief systems and relationship issues. I became more and more comfortable addressing spiritual issues of all sorts in counseling and today, I can’t imagine anymore leaving this crucial part of a person’s life unaddressed.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that I spend a huge part of every session with every client talking about religion. However, faith or lack thereof is an important factor when looking at the whole person. Spiritual crises, family conflicts because of religion, and guilt because of perceived or real “sinning” are only some of the issues that come up when addressing problems such as depression, anxiety, or relationship issues. Faith becomes an even more important factor when clients are struggling with aging, death, or grief. Questions of the meaning of life or the afterlife cannot be addressed without considering a person’s belief system.
As much as spirituality can contribute or influence a client’s problem, it can also be a huge factor in moving toward the solution. For example, religious values and connections made through a shared belief system can be important resources in a client’s life. Individuals can find support in their church group and feel less lonely. Clients can also develop goals and motivation based on their spiritual values and can discover meaning and hope for their lives. And more concretely, praying and meditating are great ways to relax and improve anxiety symptoms.
For clients in therapy it is important to feel respected and not judged by their therapist — in all aspects of their life. They should be sure that their values are taken seriously and that the therapist can work within their belief system, even if the therapist doesn’t share it. It is not the job of a therapist to recommend a certain religion or convince the client of his or her beliefs. When clients feel safe to bring their spirituality into the therapy session, it can be a tremendous resource and a major factor in healing.
Antje Rath, is a clinical mental health counselor who has a practice at Moab Regional Hospital. She can be reached at 435-719-5550, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.