Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD is an award-winning child and family therapist and the founder of Kidlutions: Solutions for Kids.
What are in your opinion the professional and ethical parameters concerning discussions of God, religion, or spirituality in therapy?
God, religion and spirituality can be a core aspect of a person’s psyche. Any thorough psychosocial history should include some discussion about a person’s spirituality and/or religion and the overall role it plays in their life. If we didn’t address such a core issue, we would be remiss in our responsibilities as clinicians. To deny a client’s relationship with God would be to deny other relationships that are powerful in a person’s life (such as their relationships with their family of origin, with their spouse/partner, with their children, etc.)
Have you had any patients whose religious beliefs caused conflict for you? How did you resolve this?
When I am working with an individual, I do not sit in judgment of their spiritual beliefs any more than I would sit in judgment of their lifestyle, marital status or other viewpoints. My goal as a therapist is to “meet the client where they’re at” and to use whatever is a strength in their life as a platform and foundation for change. If religion and faith and God are primary in a client’s life, it should follow that these would be utilized to effect therapeutic change.
Should I be faced with a situation in which I clearly could not be of assistance to an individual due to a conflict, I would certainly refer that individual elsewhere. This would be true whether there was a conflict of interest due to religious beliefs or anything else that would deter me from being as helpful as possible to the person.
Have you ever introduced topics of spirituality or God during therapy?
Spirituality, religion and belief systems are all discussed as a matter of course upon the psychosocial intake. I am not a ministerial/pastoral counselor, nor do I portray that I am to my clients. That said, if spirituality and religion are driving forces in an individual’s life, it is sure to be a theme in therapy. As rapport is built and the therapist gets to know a client more fully, these themes have a tendency to emerge naturally.
I also think it is important to bear in mind that therapists are not spiritual consultants and it would clearly be an ethical issue to purport that we were. We do not offer spiritual guidance, but we do explore spirituality as it relates to the individual and within the context that it serves to propel them toward a healthier, fuller existence.
It may be that my experiences as a hospice social worker and as a substance abuse therapist have made me much more comfortable with this topic of spirituality/religion. I see it as an extension of any individual with whom I work.
Yes, in substance abuse counseling God and our relationship with God is often quite openly discussed, as opposed to mental health counseling where for a variety of reasons, this is only discussed in certain contexts. AA has given permission, so to speak, for counselors, peers, and those struggling with substance abuse and addiction to make spirituality or even religion a central part of their lives. Are there ever times when you feel bringing up God or religion or spirituality might be appropriate?
When clients are in crisis, it is natural to ask them what helps them get through some of the toughest situations in their lives. Often, people will share things like:
3. Religion and God, etc.
I would then explore each of those areas to see how the client utilizes those aspects of their life to pull through a crisis…and leverage those strengths in the overall therapeutic approach.
Thank you for the interesting talk and your time, Wendy.
Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD is an award-winning child and family therapist and the founder of Kidlutions: Solutions for Kids. She lives and practices in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She has worked in the areas of hospice, substance abuse, domestic violence and with behavioral/emotional disorders of childhood. She consults to numerous early childhood programs, including Head Start and Early Head Start. Find her on Facebook or on Twitter @Kidlutions.