Spirituality in Psychology Think Tank Conference

Scott Richards, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education, directed the Consortium for Spiritually Centered Psychology and Education at BYU held last November. The purpose of the think tank was to bring together a nationally respected group of practitioners and researchers with expertise and interests in exploring ways of collaboratively bringing spiritually oriented treatment approaches more fully into mainstream health care through clinical practice, training, and research.

Richards organized the think tank as part of his effort to show that counseling can be a spiritual as well as scientific practice. “When people seek out mental health counseling, they are often fearful that their religious beliefs won’t be respected,” Richards explained. “Because of this, some people choose not to seek counseling when they would benefit from it. We think it’s important to give the option of going to more spiritually sensitive counseling.”

This work is also in part a continuation of the legacy of Allen Bergin, a BYU faculty member and clinical psychologist known for integrating psychotherapy and religion. Bergin was Richards’ mentor, encouraging Richards as a young student to pursue his interest in psychology and religion.

Below are insights from some of the conference presentations.

Steven A. Smith, Counseling and Career Center, Brigham Young University

Smith compared patients’ mental states to deserts. The environment is dry and barren, but there are small reprieves like oases with clean and cold water. Patients are metaphorically “dried out in the desert.” The counselor’s role is to guide them to the “water.”

Smith referred to those oases as “spiritual biomes,” defining them as a level or realm of spiritual existence or interaction dictated by differing principles, practices, relationships or outcomes. He said, “There is something more we can do; we can place our hand in a higher power— whatever that higher power may be.” Counselors need to offer patients this hope. 

"When people seek out mental health counseling, they are often fearful that their religious beliefs won’t be respected. Because of this, some people choose not to seek counseling when they would benefit from it. We think it’s important to give the option of going to more spiritually sensitive counseling."

Michael E. Berrett, CEO, executive director, and co-founder of Center for Change in Orem, Utah

“Integrating Spirituality into Treatment: Lessons from 15 Years of Inpatient Practice”

Berrett has worked for more than 20 years with patients suffering from eating disorders. He uses spiritual beliefs to help them achieve a spiritual harmony, which he calls “living a life of goodwill towards self and others,” as they heal from their illness. Some of the other healing principles Berrett shares with his patients include: listening to and following the heart and learning the language of spirituality.

At the Center for Change, counselors have a universal spiritual emphasis, and every patient is encouraged to explore his own beliefs. Practitioners want to aid patients’ recovery by accessing those beliefs. “The number one thing we can do is be examples: examples in [the way] we live, in the relationships we have with patients and other people, and in the responsibility we have to live our spirituality, to have integrity, and to be honest,” Berrett said.

Student conversation hour with Think Tank presenters

Below is a sampling of the discussion.

Q: How do you reconcile some parts of psychology and spirituality?

A: Clients don’t choose a disorder, but at the end of the day they could choose out of it. Disorders include choice, power, attitude, and biology; the part where spirituality comes into the situation is when clients recognize that they do have power.

Q: Should we look at a specific religion when researching the place of spirituality in counseling, or is it better to use an ecumenical approach to spirituality?

A: There is a need for both.

Q: We are often told we should be concerned about studying psychology at such a conservative university? What advice do you have?

A: Do you have a sense in yourself that you are missing something in your training? No institution gives the whole broad view. There are many advantages to studying psychology at BYU.

Q: Do you feel the notion of a calling within the field of psychology?

A: I want to help people find their way back home; that feels like a calling for me. I want to help people to find their way back to their spirit and self. I am completely passionate about it. Sometimes a calling has you—you don’t have it.

Scott Richards, Tim Smith, Steven A. Smith

“Technologies and Methodologies for Revolutionizing How We Conduct Collaborative Psychotherapy Research on Spiritual Psychotherapies.

In 1979 Allen Bergin published an article on psychotherapy and spirituality that influenced the direction of psychotherapy. In the following 20 years many spiritually oriented therapies and treatments were developed.  “Books, articles, and workshops proliferated, making it an exciting time in this field,” Richards stated. He went on to explain that many different approaches have developed in both the West and the East, integrating therapeutic models, issues, and populations all around the world. And the desire for evidence-based practice creates a greater need to collaborate and move the work along.

There is a need for more research evidence concerning the efficacy and effectiveness of spiritually-oriented psychotherapy approaches. There is not yet a large database, and we need to better understand when and how the integration of spirituality and psychotherapy may be effective.

Richards pointed out needs for cutting edge methods and techniques in developing an evidence-base on spiritually-oriented psychotherapies, as well as for collaborative and creative teamwork among practitioners and researchers with an interest in spirituality. Several forms of technology hold promise for advancing research in this domain of psychotherapy, including online assessment systems and clinical adaptive outcome measures.

Tim Smith, chair of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education, affirmed that there is no need to hide this work under a rock because it is light and knowledge—part of the human experience. “But,” he added, “We have to measure what we’re talking about. With spirituality there is a depth of connection, and that should be evident when it is measured.”  As therapists move towards alleviating symptoms, they need not only to help eliminate the negative things, but to replace them with something positive.

Smith believes the whole spiritual experience, even the down sides, should be explored. There is always the question of aligning one’s faith with God’s will.

“A person working in this area needs to first connect himself or herself [to be able to] reflect the light and be the repositioning unit,” said Smith. “We need to share our work. There needs to be a socialness of the work we are engaged in.”

More information about the events of the think tank, including video clips of many of the presentations, as well as future initiatives planned by the McKay School’s Consortium for Spiritually-Centered Psychology and Education can be found on the McKay School website. Video of the conference will be available here.

February 4, 2013