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Spiritually Integrated Counseling

By Leah Szemborski

Many mental health counselors balk at the idea of talking about faith with their clients. Results from a study of over 400 Licensed Clinical Social Workers found that most clinicians (80%) thought that discussing religion and spirituality would be helpful in counseling, but only a handful of clinicians actually do so. Many counselors have had no formal training in addressing spiritual matters and have no idea how to even begin.

Some may not have strong religious convictions themselves and feel ill-equipped to help clients enhance their spirituality; while others may have strong convictions and fear that they may be perceived as pushing their religious views on clients if they bring up this topic.

Regardless of why many counselors are choosing not to address spirituality in counseling, Gerald Corey, (sponsored by the American Counseling Association), states: “Spiritual and religious matters are therapeutically relevant, ethically appropriate, and potentially significant topics for the practice of counseling in secular settings.”

Research clearly demonstrates that people in good spiritual health are happier, have greater well-being, and more hope, optimism, and gratitude then those who are not. There are many benefits to incorporating spirituality into counseling work. It is to the client’s benefit when the counselor feels equipped and confident in bringing up such matters.

Understanding Spirituality

To start, counselors must have a framework for understanding spirituality. Basically, spirituality seeks to answer two fundamental questions:

* What is the purpose of my life?

* Am I connected to something bigger than myself?

A person’s religion might help them be more spiritual by providing meaning and purpose in life.

For example, a Christian might see the purpose of their life as sharing the gospel with others. The connection to something bigger would most obviously be their connection to God, but could also be their church congregation, or the “mission field” (community) in which they live. Religion can certainly help people be spiritual, but spirituality is not exclusive to religion.

Many people who do not associate with any organized religion feel a deep sense of purpose—maybe to raise a healthy family, or to advocate for an important cause. Their connection to something bigger could be family, nature, community, vulnerable populations, or any number of things.

Beginning the Conversation

A simple way to start a conversation about spirituality is simply to ask. A question like, “Do you have any faith or spirituality?” can be a great way to gather information about the role of religion, faith, and spirituality in their life. Clients who are connected to a religious institution often find great comfort in their belief system, or the support network that they have there, while others might have been badly hurt or humiliated by religious leaders and are still carrying the wounds.

Some people find hope in ritual and scripted traditions, while others are much more ambivalent about their belief in “God,” and instead believe in a spiritual force or connection that runs through humanity and the universe.

Regardless of whether the client’s beliefs are a source of comfort, protection, and guidance, or if the client is ambivalent or angry towards God or religious institutions, all of this information is invaluable to the counseling process.

One thing to remember, though, is that if the counselor doesn’t ask about faith or spirituality, the client probably won’t tell you. It’s important that counselors intentionally ask these questions of every client in order to have a comprehensive assessment that acknowledges this essential aspect of life.

Leah Szemborski is an EAP counselor, consultant, and educator based in Wisconsin. Note: This is an abbreviated version of a story that originally appeared in the "Employee Assistance Report" newsletter.

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