The Delicate Balance of Religion and Therapy

Religion has been shown to be a stabilizing factor for mental well-being. Research has demonstrated that people who have religious beliefs tend to have better mental health, physical health, and more satisfying relationships than those who do not have any religious beliefs. Religious individuals who seek therapy may look specifically for a therapist who is of their religious affiliation; however, many choose to work with secular therapists in order to receive an unbiased assessment of their psychological state. Because of this, it is important to understand how religious clients view the treatment they receive from secular therapists. Carrie L. Cragun of the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at the University of Albany in New York was curious to find out if religious individuals held negative or positive opinions of secular therapists and the treatment they provided.

Cragun recently reviewed assessments from 11 Christian individuals who had received therapy from secular therapists. She evaluated whether the clients reported their experiences as positive or negative and how religion influenced their reports. Cragun found that the majority of the clients reported positive experiences from the secular therapists. This was most often the result of working with a therapist who was open and willing to discuss religious beliefs. The therapists who were judgmental and less inclusive with respect to faith were seen as providing a negative therapeutic experience. However, when therapists explained that they were unqualified to discuss their client’s religion, the clients respected that response and still rated the overall experience as positive.

Religious beliefs play a significant role in the lives of many clients. This study demonstrates that many individuals do not feel comfortable initiating discussions about this important topic to therapists. “Results suggest that creating safety for clients to discuss their religious identity and beliefs could begin on intake,” Cragun said. “Therapists could ask about clients’ coping methods or specifically about religion and spirituality.” Providing an environment in which a client feels fully accepted regardless of religious devotion or ambiguity will set the stage for full disclosure in other areas. Cragun believes that the best place for this to start is when students are studying to become therapists. Learning about the importance of multicultural issues and how to integrate these issues into therapy will allow therapists to be more inclusive of clients from every ethnic and religious background.

Cragun, C. L., Friedlander, M. L. (2012). Experiences of Christian clients in secular psychotherapy: A mixed-methods investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028283

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • katelynn

    June 26th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    Therapists have to be so mindful of the religion of clients, especially when this is something that plays an important role in the life of the patient. If the patient is more secular minded then maybe it’s not such a big deal. But if religion is very strong in a person’s life, or even if it isn’t now but they are searching for a way to find more meaning in their lives, then this is something that a good therapist will be sensitive to. Religios beliefs, even if they don’t mesh with your own, have to be taken into consideration as you work with any population, and be sure to not demean their beliefs and work with them to make them a positive part of their recovery process.

  • Debra

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:47 PM

    Anyone in the role of therapist also has to be careful too not to push their own religios beliefs onto their patients. There are many people who want to keep that part of their lives separate from their therapy and that has to be acknowledged and respected.

  • melanie

    June 27th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    No one wants to be in a therapeutic alliance with someone whom they believe feels negatively about their religious beliefs or tries to press their own views onto others.

    I know that for the most part a therapist will have the best interests of the client in mind; however there could be certain situations where the client does not feel that, they feel pressured to change their beliefs or maybe even made to feel like something that they are doing in regards to their beliefs could be causing their issues.

    I know that for me, I can respect someone who either tells me they don’t know enough about religion to talk about it with me, or admits that they are open to conversations with me on a non judgemental basis. But if this is someone who is so closed off and does not want to discuss my beliefs with me without telling me how wrong I am then that will make me tune out and fast.

  • TH

    June 27th, 2012 at 4:58 AM

    I agree that therapists should consider the religion of their clients. It is because they need to respect their faith in their selected and respective religion.

  • ellis m

    June 27th, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    I personally believe that religion should not play a role in the therapeutic process at all unless the person in therapy actively seeks it within a church or other religios resource. What kind of place should it play? I feel none. Mental illness is not brought on by one’s belief system or lack of religion. It is brought on by other internal and external factors, and although religion can play a role in someone’s life I have a hars time believing that those kinds of beliefs can really affect one’s mental stability. I know that there are those who lean on that for improving their lives, and maybe that is when it does come in, but for the most part I just don’t believe that this is where it should be discussed or even made into an issue.

  • Miller

    June 28th, 2012 at 4:33 AM

    But if the client brings up religious questions and makes those kind of statements in therapy, isn’t it kind of mandatory that the therapist should at least help him address those concerns?

  • ARabelLE

    June 29th, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    No matter how religious someone is this is not always what they are seeking in therapy. It is up to the therapist to recognize whether or not this is something that should be pursued in a therapeutic setting.

  • David S

    December 3rd, 2014 at 9:07 AM

    Secularism is a religion. Secularism by its very nature eliminates the possibility or existence of God. It also has its own biased belief system.

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