So many people turn to spirituality and religion for support. So it is worth considering how these practices can fit into the work you might do with a therapist.
Many people assume that spirituality and religion have to be kept out of a therapist's office. But more and more clinicians realize that it can be helpful for patients to talk about their spiritual and religious beliefs.
Certainly, religion is an important part of American life. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has reported that 87% of Americans consider themselves to be religious, while 57% attend some type of worship service on a regular basis.
Likewise, a Newsweek/Beliefnet poll found that 88% of Americans who responded described themselves as spiritual, religious or both.
There's no way to know how many respondents were struggling with their mental health, but many of them probably turned to their spiritual practices for comfort, particularly if they were working hard to manage severe and ongoing problems such as addiction, unusual stress or mental illness. Moreover, as a way to enhance psychotherapy, understanding a person's spirituality may provide helpful insights into his or her value system or relationships.
Clinicians working in hospitals, mental health centers and other participating organizations are required by The Joint Commission — an independent organization that accredits and certifies more than 15,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States — to do a "spiritual assessment" of patients' spiritual beliefs and practices. The information is intended to improve treatment and services.
Critics of the regulation say that a spiritual assessment may not be as important in highly technical aspects of medical care — for example, cardiac surgery — as it is in primary care or mental health. Moreover clinicians in private practice don't have to adhere to The Joint Commission requirements.
Many patients receiving counseling may want their spiritual beliefs to be taken into account as part of their treatment. If this is important to you, it's helpful if the person treating you:
If you're wondering how to get the conversation about spirituality going with your therapist or doctor, it may help to start by explaining your religious practices. Of course, it is up to your therapist or doctor to put you at ease so you can talk about these things. If religion is an important part of your life and your therapist is not interested in hearing about it, consider consulting someone else who is.
Here are some useful topics to talk about:
With a little planning, your religious practice does not have to compete with your mental health treatment. Instead, you and your therapist can find the best ways to use it as one more way to enhance your life.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is Editor in Chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. He is also associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been practicing psychiatry for more than 25 years and teaches in the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Program.