Counseling African American Clients: Professional Counselors and Religious Institutions

Article excerpt

The authors describe a model counseling ministry within an African American church and discuss how the larger body of professional counselors can interface with similar programs and institutions that are a source of strength for many African Americans. Implications of the model for professional counselors are also discussed.

Religious institutions have been an unwavering presence in traditional African American communities. Weaver, Koenig, and Larson (1997) highlighted research indicating the importance of the church in the lives of many African Americans, especially older adults. For example, a national study of 581 African American senior citizens concluded that 95% of these individuals believed they were largely religious; daily prayer was practiced by 94% of the respondents (Taylor & Chatters, 1991). Church services, one's religious orientation, pastoral counseling, and community outreach are areas that have all been demonstrated to contribute significantly to the psychological well-being of African Americans (Helms & Cook, 1999).

Religious institutions clarify questions about an individual's existence, his or her place in the scheme of life, and the manner in which that individual interprets his or her relationship with a Supreme Being or life itself. Religious institutions are considered social phenomena that are defined by varied belief and practice systems, membership requirements, and organizational details (Miller & Thoresen, 2003, p. 27). These institutions holistically address all facets of an individual, including the individual's rational, creative, emotional, and spiritual sides (Felder, 1987).

Boyd-Franklin (1989) indicated that mental health training programs tend to ignore religion and spirituality as a treatment concern. The cultural trend has been to separate the secular from spiritual/religious concerns. Kelly (1995) indicated that this is contrary to the purpose of counseling, because it ignores factors that are relevant to the client's improvement and development. Miller and Thoresen (2003) stated that the scientific field has viewed religion on a continuum ranging from irrational to pathological. Only after the publication of the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) were spiritual and religious concerns recognized "as normal developmental issues" (p. 32).

In addition to examining the lack of recognition of spiritual and religious concerns and the traditional separation of these, Connelly and Light (2003) also examined two other pitfalls that health care providers should consider. One issue concerns the clarification of treatment options. A client's options for treatment should be explained clearly, evaluated, and implemented. These treatments should incorporate a client's spiritual and religious convictions in an attempt to help the client solve problems, develop personally, and survive emotional and mental trauma. Emphasizing religion and spirituality as its own issue, rather than as one component of a client's history, seems to necessitate a more formalized documentation system wherein counselors clearly track progress and chart improvement for treatments such as "prayer, guided imagery, meditation, dream analysis, 'life review' of past sources of strength, journaling, therapeutic touch, or use of art and music" (Connelly & Light, 2003, pp. 38-39). A second issue that Connelly and Light discussed was the lack of collaboration among health care providers for the betterment of a client's total health. The client's best interests are served when interdisciplinary providers refer, assess, and document all pertinent aspects of client care.

Counselors are becoming more aware of and open to the relationship among religion, spirituality, and the helping process (Kelly, 1995). Extensive research in this area indicates "a general positive relationship between religiousness and wellness" (Miller & Thoresen, 2003, p. …