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McKay School PhD graduate discusses the importance of spirituality in counseling for eating disorders

Many believe it’s time for mental health professionals to understand the importance of religious and spiritual concerns when counseling patients. This is what helped drive BYU McKay School PhD graduate Carrie Caoili’s research.

Caoili and professor P. Scott Richards collected interview data from women with eating disorders (ED) at the Center for Change, a patient treatment center in Orem. Their research questioned whether patients’ spiritual practices influenced their treatment and recovery.

Caoili graduated in August 2015 and presented her dissertation, “The Role of Spirituality in Treatment and Recovery from Eating Disorders,” in March 2015 at the APA Division 36 Conference. She was honored with the Division 36 2015 midyear student award as a student research symposium presenter.

In her presentation and dissertation, Caoili discussed how some patients believe that spirituality is an important topic to incorporate into counseling sessions. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean religion; it can have different meanings, such as having a connection to a higher being or to nature.

Through their research, Caoili and Richards discovered that many patients believe spirituality plays a large role in recovery and has a positive impact on it. A small minority of patients believe that it makes no difference.

“Women who believed in a higher being were not in the depth of their eating disorder,” said Caoili. “As a whole, those who had no connection to the family were in the depth of their ED.”

Spirituality in the psychology field is rarely seen, despite the benefits it can offer patients. Psychologists are not against spirituality, but most don’t know how to use it in their work.

Caoili feels that therapists need to be open to the role that spirituality can play in the life of a client, whether it is through a spiritual meditation, connection to nature, or belief in God.

“If you take the leap, it’s very successful,” stated Caoili.

By understanding their patients’ beliefs and spiritual customs, counselors can touch on areas that they have not previously discussed and can better connect with their patients.

Spirituality can have a profound effect on patients and encourage their progress. As a psychologist, you have nothing to lose if you ask the patient if they are spiritual. It can open a door of communication that would have otherwise stayed closed.

When asked about how to incorporate spirituality and religion into sessions and treatment, Caoili said, “Just ask, ‘How can we incorporate this?’ or ‘Is this important to you?’”

The research revealed that some participants believed a connection to a higher being was important in overcoming their eating disorder and staying in treatment.

Believing in a higher being helped many participants with their eating disorders; their spiritual beliefs gave them hope to believe in themselves. The feeling of believing in something bigger gave them strength and comfort.

“This is a topic that can be important in a client’s life but is often overlooked by counselors,” said Caoili. “We would love to see a higher public awareness of religion and spirituality in psychology.”

Caoili is originally from Hillsborough, New Jersey, but currently resides in Georgia with her husband and two children. Caoili completed her bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University, her master’s at Seton Hall University, and her PhD at BYU.

Writer: Joann Distler

Contact: Cynthia Glad (801) 422-1922