Mental Health and Spirituality

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Many thanks to Bill O’Hanlon for his permission to use his excellent article on my website!

Mental Health and Spirituality

written by Bill O’Hanlon 

When I visit Britain, I am often amused when I take the Tube (London’s subway train system) to see the signs that warn passengers to beware of stepping in the space between the train and the platform: Mind The Gap, the signs read.

I was thinking of that phrase recently when I came across some research on spirituality and therapy.

A survey undertaken by marriage and family therapist Carlson Thomas (survey results published in April 2002 issue of American Journal of Family Therapy) asked a number of marriage and family therapists several questions.

The first questions was: Do you think there is a relationship between spirituality and mental health?

96% of the respondents answered yes. Obviously, almost all of them thought there was a relationship there.

But then he asked them the second question: Do you think spiritual issues should be considered in clinical work?

This time only 62% said yes. What explains this gap? And should we mind? I think we should and a look at another two surveys tell why.

The first poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Research in October, 2000. They asked the general public about their beliefs about the relationship between spiritual faith/religious beliefs and mental and emotional health. 83% of the respondents said they thought there was a relationship between them. Among African-American respondents, virtually all (97%) held this view. When asked if these issues were important in any therapy they might seek, 75% said it was important to see a professional counselor who would consider and integrate their values and beliefs into the counseling process. And 69% believed it to be important to see a professional counselor who represents spiritual values and beliefs if they had a serious problem that required counseling.

In a 1997 Gallup poll, people responded to the query “How important would you say religion is in your own life?”61% of the respondents answered “very important.’” 27% answered “fairly important.” 11% said “not very important,” and 1% had no opinion. Now, not counting people who don’t relate to the word religion and consider themselves spiritual instead (which this poll didn’t measure), it seems that at least 88% of our clients consider religion a crucial part of their lives.

Yet, therapists are, at times, reluctant to include or visit spiritual or religious beliefs. I think our blocks come in part from Freud’s legacy. Freud considered religion to be a defense mechanism, made up of “illusions,” reflecting the “universal, obsessional neurosis of human beings.”

But aside from Freud’s influence, which has surely waned through the years, many of us have been restrained by our training or supervision experiences. When I speak on this subject, I take an informal poll of the audience of therapists. The majority, especially of older therapists, raise their hands when I asked how many of them were restrained or forbidden by supervisors or teachers from bringing religious or spiritual issues up in the therapy process. Obviously, many of us were also encouraged to include these issues as well, as part of being culturally sensitive, but often we weren’t given guidelines as to how to do so.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in including spiritual issues and resources in therapy, with a number of books released about the subject. I am encouraged by this trend and hope you are too. Now if we can only sort out what we mean by spirituality and come up with some guidelines for when it is most useful to bring it into treatment and how, exactly to do so without imposing our own beliefs or disputing our clients’ beliefs, we will be able to move forward.

That’s what Casey and I plan to do during the Spirituality and Psychotherapy Virtual Conference February 14-18, 2011. We hope you will join us.

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