IONS Breaks New Ground in Mental Health Care

July 19, 2016
Cassandra Vieten, Science

A new article and book by Institute of Noetic Sciences scientists and their colleagues are shifting the field of mental health care to recognize the vital importance of spiritual experiences, beliefs and practices in psychological well-being.

Do people’s spiritual and religious beliefs and practices influence their mental and emotional health?

Should psychotherapists ask about them, and pay attention to them in treatment?

Unless clients have none, or would prefer not to discuss them, the answer is yes.

Asking about clients’ spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, if any, should be a routine part of mental health care. This is true for every form of psychotherapy, even when the therapist is not spiritual or religious themselves, and does not intend to engage in any kind of spiritually-oriented treatment.

Why? Shouldn’t spirituality and religion be kept out of the therapy room and left where they belong, in a church, mosque, synagogue, meditation center, or yoga class? Shouldn’t psychotherapy be free from any kind of superstition or mysticism, and remain scientific and evidence-based? Aren’t spirituality and religion private issues, not relevant to mental health care? Don’t modern and intelligent people steer clear of these topics in general?

In short, no. Why? Research shows that:

  1. Religious and spiritual beliefs and practices are prevalent and diverse in the US and in your clients. Gallup polls indicate that 92% of Americans believe in God, 55–59% of Americans say that religion is “very important” in their lives, and another 24–29% say that religion is “fairly important in their lives”
  2. Religion and spirituality are forms of cultural diversity that are as important to people as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Like other forms of cultural diversity, spiritual and religious beliefs and practice shape people’s lives, worldviews, thoughts, perceptions and behaviors. And just like other forms of cultural competence, spiritual and religious competence should be required in training of mental health professionals
  3. Religious and spiritual beliefs and practices are important to the emotional lives of most people, and surveys indicate that they would like to talk about this part of their lives with their therapists. Yet psychologists report discussing spirituality and religion with only 30% of their clients, and less than half address their clients’ spirituality or religion in assessment or treatment planning. Most psychologists receive little or no training in any form of spirituality or religion as it relates to mental and emotional health.
  4. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that religion and spirituality are relevant to mental health, and to people’s overall well-being and sense of meaning and purpose. Spirituality and religion can offer inner and outer resources to enhance clients recovery and mental/emotional health, and clinicians can help people access those resources. Clinicians should also know how to identify spiritual and religious problems, struggles, or maladaptive practices and beliefs.
  5. Most healthcare fields already require spiritual and religious competencies on the part of clinicians, such as routinely taking a spiritual history or including people’s spiritual and religious practices (if any) in their plans for ongoing support. But mental health care and psychology are lagging behind. Even the World Psychiatric Association says it’s time.

What do we Mean by Spiritual and Religious?

Religion is defined as an organization that is guided by shared beliefs and practices, whose members adhere to a particular understanding of the divine and participate in religious rituals. Spirituality is defined more broadly as an individual’s internal sense of connection to something “more,” something beyond oneself, which could be perceived as a higher power or God, but could also be a more general sense of the sacred, consciousness, or interconnectedness to all life. Some people’s spirituality is deeply informed by participation in organized religions, while others describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Still others do not have any spiritual or religious involvement in their background. All of these appear to be highly relevant to people’s psychological well-being.

Psychologists Agree: Training Should Include These Competencies

Read the APA article: Spiritual and religious competencies for psychologists.

Scientists and psychologists at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and their colleagues from across the country have recently published two academic papers in APA journals. The first proposed a set of attitudes, knowledge and skills that we propose all mental health professionals should receive training and demonstrate competence in. The second, just published in June 2016 showed that the vast majority of psychologists agree that these competencies should be included in training, and that 50-80% had received little or no training in them.

What are some of these competencies?

  • being able to conduct effective and empathic psychotherapy with clients from diverse religious and spiritual traditions
  • routinely asking about clients’ spiritual and religious beliefs and practices as part of taking a client’s history and assessing their resources and strengths
  • knowing ways that some religious and spiritual experiences mimic psychiatric symptoms, and being able to discriminate between the two
  • knowing the difference between spirituality and religion and being able to address both domains in psychotherapy
  • therapists being aware of their own biases based on their religious and spiritual background and beliefs
  • treating religious and spiritual background as just as important as racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background in terms of diversity
  • knowing how to work in concert with spiritual directors or clergy members in clients’ treatment when appropriate

Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice: “A Timely and Important Book”

IONS President Cassandra Vieten and colleague Shelley Scammell published a book, Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice: Guidelines for Psychotherapists and Mental Health Professionals (2015, New Harbinger Publications) that describes these skills in detail, and provides training guidelines for teaching new mental health professionals. With a foreword by prominent psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, and endorsements from a host of leading psychologists and physicians, APA’s PsycCritiques, which critically reviews psychological literature, says this about the book:

Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice is a timely and important book that provides both trainees and clinicians the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes for clinical practice in a manner that is sensitive to spiritual and religious issues. It is and will be an invaluable resource for this and subsequent generations of psychotherapists and mental health professionals.
Sperry, Len. PsycCRITIQUES March 21, 2016, Vol. 61, No. 12, Article 4 © 2016 American Psychological Association

An online course providing continuing education units to professionals is in development.

Re-incorporating Meaning, Purpose, Love…

Don’t underestimate the importance of this advancement. The “father” of psychology William James took for granted the essential role that spirituality played in people’s mental health. But over time, in its struggle to be accepted as legitimate science, the mainstream field of psychology has become known for pathologizing, or at least benignly ignoring, religious and spiritual beliefs as aspects of people’s psychological well-being.

Now, with the increase in mindfulness-based interventions, and dozens of scientific studies linking spiritual and religious experiences, beliefs, and practices to psychological health, the time has come for psychology to re-incorporate people’s perceptions of things like meaning, purpose, love, transcendence, beauty, awe, and connection to a higher power in assessment and treatment of mental and emotional problems. Transpersonal, Jungian, and spiritually-oriented therapists have done this for decades. But rather than being a specialty or niche, we believe these basic attitudes and skills should be possessed by all mental health professionals in order to be competent.

It’s becoming clear now that mental health clinicians need not, and should not, shy away from the religious and spiritual domains of people’s lives. Helping clients utilize their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices as resources for their mental and emotional well-being should reduce suffering and enhance well-being for the millions who seek help from mental health professionals each year.

IONS President/CEO Cassandra Vieten, PhD, along with Shelley Scammell, PhD, is author of Spiritual and Religious Competencies for Clinical Practice: Guidelines for Mental Health Professionals. She also co-authored Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life, and authored Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year.

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