Should Therapists Be Equipped to Talk About Diverse Faiths?
July 13, 2020
I grew up in a Jewish home in Phoenix, Arizona, and ever since I was 13, I have known that I wanted to be a couples therapist. What I didn’t know is that I would specialize in interfaith and intercultural couples therapy. But, as a Marriage and Family Therapist in downtown Chicago, my interest in understanding people’s faith backgrounds and spirituality has shaped me as a clinician. Here’s how that happened.
When I was a junior in high school, I visited Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in Northern California, and had an immediate gut feeling that this was it. Many of my peers and family members questioned what it would be like for me to attend a Jesuit school as a Jewish teenager – Jesuits are part of the Catholic Church and are also known as The Society of Jesus. I honestly thought nothing of it. My 18-year-old brain was more focused on the possibility of cute boys in my dorm and whether or not I’d want to rush a sorority. Once I arrived, I found the Jewish Student Union on campus, happy to attend events and fill a seat, but with no interest in assuming a leadership position. I declared my major as Psychology, and I was ready to continue on my path to becoming a therapist.
A requirement of graduating from the School of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara included taking three religious studies classes, and much to my surprise, I ended up enjoying these classes. I remember being put in a “trust group” in a class called Finding Your Own Spirituality. The students in this group were from all walks of life, and we would have probably never met or talked to each other outside of this class.
In our trust group, we were encouraged to talk about aspects of our life that had been extremely difficult, how we faced them, and how these experiences impacted us. We shared stories of sick parents, the death of a close friend, and struggles with addiction. We cried as we heard each other’s stories and showed each other support throughout the quarter. This experience was particularly significant for me because it taught me that even though on the surface I may not have much in common with these classmates, we all had experienced significant pain and heartache.
I learned over time that a Jesuit education meant discussing social justice and global issues, and how we can use morals and values from our own spirituality and religion, not necessarily Catholicism, to improve the world around us. Before I knew it, I had enough credits to officially be religious studies minor, which quickly became a double major.
I was drawn to classes that bridged relationships, spirituality, and faith. For the first time, I started to see how my interest in psychology and spirituality could go hand-in-hand. These classes had a running refrain of placing importance on universal themes of humanity, such as relationships, love, and how we make sense of the parts of life that don’t have answers. As I was becoming more aware of my personal spirituality and Jewish identity through my classes, I became more involved with the Jewish Student Union on campus, and ultimately became president. As my own faith was growing, my double major in psychology and religious studies planted the seed and gave me a framework for how I would eventually use faith and spirituality as a therapist.
Then, in graduate school to earn my master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, I learned that new questions had recently been added to a national health care intake assessment, also referred to as the biopsychosocial model. The new questions meant health care workers would ask about a patient’s spirituality the same way they ask about medical and mental health history and close relationships.
I noticed that many of my classmates felt uncomfortable assessing clients on their spirituality and their relationship with God or faith. Many of my classmates vocalized that they did not feel equipped to ask questions about religion, as they did not know much about religion or did not identify as religious themselves. It was interesting to me that a cohort of open-minded therapists felt more confident and comfortable asking about a client’s history with substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness than asking about religion or spirituality. Talking about religion has become taboo or intimidating, even for therapists. This tells me that we all need more opportunities to dialogue about and understand religion and spirituality – and especially people in health care.
It is important that therapists feel equipped to ask questions about faith and spirituality as more and more people are dating and marrying outside of their communities and as therapy is becoming less stigmatized. In the past, someone may have gone to their priest or rabbi (or another religious leader) to discuss hardships in their lives or attend premarital or couples counseling, and now, more people are likely to seek out a therapist.
In my graduate class Spirituality in Family Therapy, we read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which I have found to be one of the most useful books in my current practice. Frankl stresses that to experience love, joy, pain, and loss are all an invaluable and inevitable part of the human experience. It is how we make meaning of it and respond to it that can help us move forward with our lives. While a Jewish Holocaust survivor wrote this, every person, no matter which faith and cultural community they identify with, can relate to this message. Frankl’s work has helped me treat clients, no matter their faith background.
Today, I use tools that I learned from my undergraduate and graduate classes, as well as my personal life experiences, to treat individuals and couples. I help couples understand that while their individual sadness and fear may come from different places, the impact it has on them, and the relationship may be similar. Understanding differences in culture, religion, and spirituality reminds me that while we all have had different life experiences, which may affect how we see the world, we really aren’t that different. However, through my training and experiences, I have also learned that religion and spirituality might mean something different to different people, even from the same faith community. The best way to understand someone’s relationship with faith and spirituality is simple: you just ask them.
My personal spiritual journey, as well as my training, has given me space and opportunity to understand the importance of asking questions about faith and maintaining a curiosity about others’ experiences.
No matter what profession you are in, or how your own path changes along the way, it is always necessary to learn the invaluable tools of listening, respect, empathy, and compassion. To learn more about someone else’s worldview, be willing to share your own, remember to be curious, focus on core values and feelings, and be open. You never know how one person or one experience may change your outlook on something, or like me, change the course of your life.
Becca Hirsch is a relationship and sex therapist, who specializes in interfaith and intercultural couples therapy. She earned her bachelor’s degree with a double-major in Psychology and Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. After working in the non-profit sector, she continued her education by pursuing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of San Diego. You can learn more about her work and services on her website.
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