Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Does Religion Belong in the Counseling Environment?
It used to be that counselors avoided talking about religion or spiritual issues with clients; the subject was considered inappropriate in the counseling environment. Today, however, there has been a paradigm shift in Schools of Social Work, which now teach that assessing a client’s spiritual needs and/or beliefs is as important to the counseling process as assessing what is happening in the client’s social and personal environment. I tend to agree.
When I do an initial assessment with a client, I ask a lot of questions, ranging from important events in your medical history to substance use to mental health history and spiritual beliefs. I want to know what sustains my clients in difficult times. Not everyone follows a spiritual path, and some people are spiritual but not religious. Some people cling to their religious beliefs when they face life challenges, while others completely abandon previously held belief systems. This information is important to the counseling process because, as a social worker, I want to evaluate all of the various elements of my client’s environment and belief systems to understand how those have either worked for or failed my client. If my client tells me that they couldn’t survive without the fellowship of their church, I will encourage them to maintain that relationship and participate as much as possible. The fellowship of a church family can be a wonderful source of support for those who follow a religious path. On the other hand, if my client tells me they have no spiritual belief system or they have abandoned a previously-held system, then I am probably going to encourage them to find and develop an alternative support system in the community. It might be through joining a book club or getting together with friends for a weekly hike. It might be through AA or joining a committee that is working on a special project. The important message here is: a support system is an important element in the healing process. Humans do not function well in isolation.
When we are part of a group that shares similar beliefs or values, we feel validated as an individual. We know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, but to which we make valuable contributions. We find camaraderie, friendship, and purpose. When we participate in a group effort – whether it is to build a park or find a deeper meaning in God, we are no longer isolated in our own thoughts and feelings. For someone who is feeling depressed or who has low self-esteem, a group can help illuminate the path out of darkness.
I believe that, as a counselor, I have an ethical and moral obligation to accept my clients “where they are”, which essentially means, I will never turn someone away because of their religious or spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. Nor would I ever offer religion or spirituality as an option to clients who tell me they have no spiritual path. That’s not my job. My role is to help the client understand what does or doesn’t work to help them feel supported in their journey. It is important for my clients to know that I will ask about your spiritual or religious beliefs during our initial assessment. If your answer is one that indicates this is an important area for you, we will explore it further to see how you might strengthen your connections to something that is helpful to you. On the other hand, if your answer is “no”, we will move on to other things that you find helpful. The services I provide will be the same, regardless of your answer. I will support you in your time of need; together, we will figure out a plan to resolve whatever is causing your distress. I will respect who you are and what you believe. In for some reason I feel your beliefs are interfering with your mental health, we will talk about it and why I believe it is necessary to challenge your beliefs. But, cognitive distortions are a topic for another time.
If you are experiencing distress in your life and feel you need help to work through it, please give me a call and let’s see what we can do together to help you find your way back to a peaceful and rewarding life. We all need help sometimes in our lives. I believe that you already have the answers to your questions, but you just need help in working through the confusing emotions that can accompany change. Sometimes you need to just be still and listen – your life is calling. The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems
I would be interested in hearing readers’ views on this topic. Please feel free to post your comments!