College Counselor Attitudes toward Spiritual and Religious Issues and Practices in Counseling

Article excerpt

In this study, 86 mental health professionals employed in university counseling centers in the United States were surveyed on their attitudes toward discussing religious and spiritual topics and toward using religious and spiritual practices in counseling. These participants viewed the use and discussion of spiritual topics/practices more favorably than the use and discussion of religious topics/practices. Differences in attitudes toward specific topics and practices are reported, as are implications for practice.

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Spirituality and religion seem to be gaining importance in the view of mental health practitioners. Several authors (Richards & Bergin, 1997, 2000; Steere, 1997; Wolf & Stevens, 2001) have described religious and spiritual issues as generally relevant to psychotherapy. Grimm (1994) has contended that acknowledging spiritual and religious values and incorporating those values into clinical practice contribute to positive therapeutic outcomes. Bergin (1988, 1991) and Anderson and Worthen (1997) have suggested that an orientation toward religious and spiritual values provides a moral frame of reference for therapy. Counselors should expect that spirituality and religion play a part in how at least some of their clients think and feel about certain issues and problems (Kelly, 1998a). The traditional feeling that there is alienation between religion and psychology seems to be decreasing. Richards and Bergin (1997) have suggested that "the zeitgeist is now ripe for the integration of a spiritual strategy into mains tream psychotherapy theory and practice" (p. 48).

Some therapists, however, are reluctant as well as untrained in appreciating a client's religious or spiritual experiences and incorporating them in treatment. Ethical concerns about improperly influencing clients' values, a strong opinion about the privacy of religious values, concerns about discussing religion in a publicly funded counseling milieu, lack of knowledge about handling spiritual or religious aspects of clients' issues, and the uncertainty of the relevance of clients' spiritual ideas to their developmental and mental health issues may also cause counselors to avoid the inclusion of the spiritual and religious beliefs of clients as a part of counseling (Kelly, 1998a).

However, some argue that spirituality and religion influence the lives of professionals, as well as clients, to such a degree that these influences must be included as part of the therapeutic process. Indeed, research suggests that many mental health professionals hold spiritual and religious values (Bergin, 1991; Bergin & Jensen, 1990; Jensen & Bergin, 1988; Shafranske & Malony, 1990). A recent survey of counselor values, based on a nationally representative sample of members of the American Counseling Association, showed that almost 64% of the participants believe in a personal God, and another 25% believe in a transcendent or spiritual dimension to reality (Kelly, 1998b). Approximately 70% expressed some degree of affiliation with organized religion, and almost 45% noted that they were highly active or regularly participated in their religion. It seems clear that many mental health professionals address spiritual and religious issues in their personal lives, respect the function religion serves in others' lives, and profess competence in dealing with religious and spiritual issues in psychotherapy (Shafranske & Gorsuch, 1985; Shafranske & Malony, 1990). Of psychologists that Shafranske and Malony questioned, more than half rated having religious beliefs as desirable for people in general and considered spirituality as personally relevant.

Despite the fact that many therapists value religion and spirituality and that therapists' spiritual values do influence their professional work (e.g., Anderson & Worthen, 1997), there is little evidence that counselors are openly discussing spiritual and religious issues and practices in therapy. …