Transpersonal Psychotherapy with Incarcerated Adolescents

By Himelstein, Sam | Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Transpersonal Psychotherapy with Incarcerated Adolescents

Himelstein, Sam, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

ABSTRACT: Approaches to individual psychotherapy with incarcerated adolescents often discuss cognitive-behavioral therapy and solution-focused methods. The intention of this article is to promote a transpersonal approach to working with this population and to equip mental health professionals and interns with diverse psychotherapeutic methods that inform sound clinical practice. A transpersonal approach primarily informed by existential and spiritual theories is presented and two case illustrations exemplify the method. Practical and theoretical implications are discussed.

There is a strong need for diverse approaches for working with incarcerated adolescents in the psychotherapeutic setting. Psychotherapeutic literature on the subject is limited to primarily manualized cognitive-based group interventions (Guerra, Kim, & Boxer, 2008), solution-focused psychotherapy (Corcoran, 1997), motivational interviewing (Ginsburg, Mann, Rotgers, & Weekes, 2002), and multiple system approaches (Schaeffer & Borduin, 2005), most of which maintain empirical support. Despite such literature, interns and new therapists working with incarcerated adolescents are often left without specific instruction in how to properly engage this population in psychotherapy sessions.

This article presents an approach to psychotherapy with juvenile offenders in which the existential issues of life and death, spirituality, and authenticity can be directly explored. First, the transpersonal approach presented is defined given that writings on what principles constitute transpersonal psychology are numerous. Second, a discussion of the primary foundations of this transpersonal approach is presented with the rationale for using it with incarcerated youth.

Third, two case illustrations are presented to exemplify this approach with two different types of clients, one dealing with constant death and the other with identity issues. Clinical implications and future directions are discussed.


The principles of transpersonal psychotherapy are numerous and thus difficult to define. Some authors suggest that the use of spiritual interventions such as meditation and prayer constitute a major foundation of transpersonal psychotherapy (Boorstein, 1996), and others suggest a much more elaborate spiritual framework from which divine inspiration influences therapists' choice of interventions (O'Grady & Richards, 2010). Because of transpersonal psychology's ambiguous and unclear consensus on what foundations actually constitute transpersonal psychotherapy, it is often defined in research and literature by its practitioners' subjective and professional experience of transpersonal theory in action, with this paper being no exception. The approach described herein reflects my personal experience of existential and spiritual psychotherapy, and how they combine for a transpersonal approach to psychotherapy.

The roots of existential psychotherapy can be traced back to the existential philosophy pioneers and thinkers of Soren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. These pioneers established the foundations of existential philosophy and all defined different variations of the existential givens or truths of existence. These givens influence human pathology, suffering, and growth. Such conditions of human nature and paradigms for psychological and spiritual growth are what ultimately informed existential psychotherapy.

Existential psychotherapy was pioneered by a number of extremely influential psychotherapists. Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychotherapist who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust, wrote about his quest for meaning through unavoidable suffering and developed Logotherapy (Frankl, 1959). This is a theoretical orientation based in the given that psychological and spiritual well-being are associated with finding meaning in suffering.

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