« There is, in short, good scientifically based reason to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality in clinical practice »
APA: You are known for research about the links between religion and coping. What are you discovering in your studies of the relationship between religion and psychological well-being and stress? What is the difference between positive and negative religious coping and its potential outcomes for patients?
Pargament: The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes is not really true. Before, during and after combat, we can find atheists who consistently hold to their orientation. It is true, though, that people often do turn to their faith as a source of solace and support in their most stressful moments. In fact, some groups such as the elderly and minority groups may be more likely to look to their faith for help than to family, friends and the health care system.
Empirical studies of many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disaster, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally helpful to people in coping, especially people with the fewest resources facing the most uncontrollable of problems. However, there are many forms of religious coping, and some are more helpful than others. People can draw on many religious and spiritual resources that have been tied to better adjustment in times of crisis. These positive religious coping methods include spiritual support from God or a higher power, rituals to facilitate life transitions, spiritual forgiveness, support from a religious institution or clergy and reframing a stressful situation into a larger, more benevolent system of meaning.
On the other hand, some forms of religious and spiritual coping can be more problematic. Life events can shake and shatter people spiritually as well as psychologically, socially and physically. People may struggle spiritually with their understanding of God, with inner conflicts or with other people. A growing body of research has linked these spiritual struggles to higher levels of psychological distress, declines in physical health and even greater risk of mortality. Thus, it is important for psychologists and other health care providers to be aware of the dual nature of religion and spirituality; they can be vital resources for health and well-being, but they can also be sources of distress.
APA: How do psychologists use religion and spirituality in clinical practice today? Among the various approaches, which do you feel are most effective and why?
Pargament: For many years, psychologists steered clear of religion and spirituality in clinical practice. That was perhaps because there was some history of religious antipathy among early psychology leaders such as Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, or perhaps because psychologists generally lack training in this area. Yet there are several good scientifically based reasons to attend to religion and spirituality in practice. For many people, religion and spirituality are key resources that can facilitate their growth. For others, religion and spirituality may be sources of problems that need to be addressed in the service of their health and well-being. Surveys show that people would like to be able to talk about matters of faith in psychological treatment. Psychologists are ethically obliged to be respectful and attentive to the cultural diversity of their clients, and religion and spirituality contribute to our personal and social identities. Finally, emerging research is showing that spiritually integrated approaches to treatment are as effective as other treatments. There is, in short, good scientifically based reason to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality in clinical practice.
Psychologists are now developing and evaluating a variety of spiritually integrated approaches to treatment, including: forgiveness programs to help divorced people come to terms with bitterness and anger; programs to help survivors of sexual abuse deal with their spiritual struggles; treatments for women with eating disorders that draw on their spiritual resources; and programs that help drug abusers re-connect to their higher selves. These programs are still in their early stages of development, but the preliminary results are promising. For psychologists unfamiliar with work in this area, I encourage them to “put their toes in the water” by simply asking their clients a question or two about their religion and spirituality. Most clients are happy to talk about these issues. By communicating their own interest in religion and spirituality, psychologists open the door to what may become a richer, deeper conversation.
Photo: Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD
Source: What Role Do Religion and Spirituality Play In Mental Health? Five questions for psychology of religion and spirituality expert Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD., March 22, 2013
The whole interview could be read at: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/03/religion-spirituality.aspx
Thanks to the American Psychological Association for its contribution to the advancement of science.