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The Elephant

Religion/spirituality is “the elephant in the room,” when it comes to mental health treatment, says Baylor University researcher Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D.

“It’s “critical” that mental health providers be equipped to assess clients’ religion/spirituality.”

“Researchers examined data from 55 young adults (ages 18-25) with serious mental illness who had used crisis emergency services. Of the 55 young adults interviewed, 34 “mentioned religion or spirituality in the context of talking about their mental health symptoms and service use with little-to-no prompting,” researchers wrote.”

“The sample for the study was racially diverse and gender-balanced. Not all of those interviewed considered themselves religious, as 41 percent answered “other,” “I don’t know” or “none” when asked their religious preference. However, researchers found that religion and spirituality emerged as a unique way in which this sample was able to make sense of their difficult life situations and mental health struggles.” (source: Baylor University Media)

Not all associations were positive ones, but the ability and even the permission to speak about religion and spirituality is one that needs to be more often present in mental health treatment. Psychotherapists and counselors should be able to treat their patients’ belief systems with respect in most cases, and allow their patients to speak about them, or otherwise refer them to a therapist who can.

In the field of behavioral health, which focuses on addiction as well as mental health, there is often greater leeway and a greater sense of freedom to discuss religion, perhaps because of the acceptance of 12-Step programs. They used to speak about God, but today often more politically correct terms such as “higher power” are used. This gives tacit permission for people who aren’t sure whether or not they believe in the Creator (or are sure that they don’t) to express their belief that they themselves are spiritual beings.

In some cases, coming from a particular religious background may make therapists more sensitive and respectful of their patient’s explorations of spirituality even if different than their own; in others, it may not. And for many patients, they themselves do best when working with a counselor of their own faith-background. Therapists who don’t believe that psycho-spirituality is essential to whole-person development, especially if that spirituality looks different than their own, must work on developing an understanding of “where” their patient is “holding,” religiously/spiritually speaking.

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