Why Mental Health Professionals Need Religious Literacy
November 19, 2021
Shivam Gosai, a mental health counselor, recalls when a client told him: “I talk to Lord Krishna, and he talks back to me.”
His client was a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement, a monotheistic sect of Hinduism that has roots in India, and opened to him about her beliefs hesitantly, adding that in her past conversations with therapists, she didn’t have the space to talk about her faith even though it’s a huge part of her identity and guides how she navigates her life. She said she felt afraid of their reaction to her beliefs.
Gosai, who is a scholar of Hindu philosophy (Advaita Vedanta) and familiar with a range of religious traditions, understood the importance of faith in his client’s life. Instead of rejecting her beliefs, he listened carefully.
“I told her that my space is open for her to talk about her faith … therapy is about understanding the whole person that’s there with you,” says Gosai, who works at Riverside Community Care in Somerville, Massachusetts. “Religion and spirituality interact with so many aspects of our personality, of how we express ourselves, how we think, and the jokes we make — we can’t really understand our clients unless we understand their religious and spiritual experience.”
In recent years, there has been a nationwide push to understand the history of racial disparities in access to mental healthcare. According to Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, people who are Black, indigenous, or people of color, are less likely to have access to mental healthcare or receive needed care, in addition to facing barriers like different cultural perceptions about mental illness, racism and discrimination, a greater vulnerability to being uninsured, access barriers, and communication barriers, and a fear and mistrust of treatment.
Gosai is among a growing number of mental health professionals who believe that in addition to racial diversity, religion need to be a part of the conversation as well.
“There is a huge gap between the religiosity of clinicians and the religiosity of the clients,” Gosai says. “This gap has always been there. Mental health professionals are not always reflective of the people we are serving.”
Gosai believes that one way to help mental health practitioners learn more about their client’s diverse religious and spiritual practices is to provide better access to religious literacy in the training they receive.
“I think clinicians are too stretched thin to have a working understanding of different religions,” Gosai says. “Being able to enter into someone’s religion and spirituality and being curious and seeing what meaning that brings to their life…is really a skill that needs to be added to our training programs.”
Speaking from his experience as a Ph.D. student in psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California, Gosai says that some educational institutions are trying to include religious literacy in their curricula, but a lot of work still needs to be done.
“In a two-year program you might have one course on multicultural competency, or a week on religion and spirituality…but there’s not a lot of attention put there,” says Gosai.
Dr. Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, thinks that partnership between religious scholars and healthcare providers could play a key role in establishing policies and training on religious literacy and its importance in public health.
“Professional organizations at national level can partner with faith leaders to make policy recommendations for social workers, psychologists, and others,” Klitzman says. “Then having people of different faiths, like a priest, or imam, speak at those trainings about what issues might come while speaking to a patient of that faith, what to look out for, is helpful.”
Klitzman adds that often trainings include information on religious literacy at a surface level and focus on the similarities between all religions – but the focus should be on helping healthcare providers feel comfortable with faiths they are not familiar with.
“Yes, I think religions happen to have a lot in common, but there are differences too that are important to be aware of – how patients understand their health, their experiences, and their suffering, are often informed by their religion,” says Klitzman.
In addition to engaging with faith leaders and religious institutions, Klitzman believes that professional health organizations at state, regional, and national levels should also invite healthcare providers of diverse faiths to be a part of their discussions and trainings.
“There are practitioners of diverse faiths – Muslim psychologists, Hindu doctors, etc., and I would work with these folks who understand the issues of diversity, and work inside the (healthcare) organization, and so they know how to have these conversations, whom to invite for trainings, what materials and resources are needed, and so on,” says Klitzman.
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Some organizations, like National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Chicago, have already begun this work. NAMI Chicago leaders say they have seen the benefits of including religious literacy as a part of their work on improving mental health conversations. Over the years, they have collaborated with a diverse group of faith communities across cities through advocacy training, outreach, recovery spaces and more to identify resources and ways to support their clients – like finding a place for them to stay, providing the right food on the table or offering emotional support.
“One of the first things we do when engaging with someone new is ask the question – do you have a spiritual background you would like to include in your mental wellness journey?” says Kasey Franco, chief education officer at NAMI Chicago. “Asking the question allows the individual to have ownership over their own mental wellness journey, which is crucial to their success.”
Franco shares that NAMI’s research shows most clients want to talk about religion, as religion provides them with a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. “These facets can have a large positive impact on mental health… spirituality can be a major part of a person’s identity and it’s important we understand their relationship with religion when providing professional support.”
The Rev. Gloria Grasse, pastoral psychotherapist at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago, believes that both mental health professionals and religious scholars should understand that the way people engage in religious practices is changing. To improve how mental healthcare is offered to patients, both faith leaders and medical professionals need to educate themselves, be open, and try to understand how the patient’s particular religious practice defines them and informs their inner world.
“Clients come in from diverse religious backgrounds that have not served them and in many cases, have abused them,” Grasse says. “Such individuals may desire the connection to something greater than themselves that faith traditions offer but choose to look for that connection in other places or in other ways.”
Franco, from NAMI Chicago, agrees with Grasse and provides four suggestions for faith leaders and communities on how to expand mental healthcare in their communities:
1. Educate your communities and congregations. Promote awareness by educating the members of your communities and congregations about mental health issues through educational forums and other opportunities.
Invite local mental health experts—including those who have experienced mental illness themselves—to speak with your congregation or at community gatherings.
State mental health as an explicit priority and why
Share facts and myths about mental health and mental illness
Organize additional meetings, dinners, or other gatherings for members of your congregation or community to have conversations about mental health.
2. Identify opportunities to support people with mental illnesses. Religious community organizations can play an important role in supporting individuals living with mental illnesses and encouraging them to seek help.
Consider offering your organization’s meeting spaces for community conversations and support groups focused on addressing mental health issues.
Provide space for peer-led groups that give people the chance to tell their stories in their own time and way.
Support community programs (for example: peer mentoring programs or opportunities for volunteering) that encourage social participation and inclusion for all people
3. Connect individuals and families to help. Strengthen the connections within your community to mental health services and support and enhance linkages between mental health, substance abuse, disability, and other social services.
Learn the basic signs of mental illnesses and other facts about mental health to encourage those in need to seek help.
Remind others that people can and do recover from mental health challenges and that help is available and effective.
Train key community members (such as adults who work with the children, youth, older adults, veterans, and LGBT individuals) to identify the signs of depression and suicide and refer people to resources.
Develop relationships with local mental health service providers
4. Promote acceptance of those with mental health issues. The voices of leaders and members of faith-based community organizations can greatly influence attitudes about mental health conditions and those who experience them.
Talk about your own mental health openly.
Be an example of taking good care of your mental health by making mental wellness a priority in your personal life.
Be inclusive. Mental health affects all of us.
Foster opportunities to build connections with individuals and families dealing with mental health challenges through trust and acceptance.
Foster safe and supportive environments for people to openly talk about mental health, stress, trauma, and related issues.
Franco believes that mental health professionals should prioritize the importance of making strong connections with faith communities, as often in times of a mental health crisis, people will turn to trusted leaders in their communities before seeking support from mental health professionals.
When leaders know how to respond and feel supported by mental health systems, they become significant assets to the overall health system and community,” Franco says.
For more information on how religious literacy can benefit mental health professionals, you can visit NAMI Chicago or the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago.