Can I talk about religion with my therapist?
The short answer: YES.
Now let’s delve into the longer answer. In my recent mad dash to be sure I have enough continuing education credits, I have found myself attending various presentations on the use of religion and spirituality within the context of therapy. As a trainee therapist, I recall wondering how religion and therapy could coexist. This was when I had a rudimentary understanding of these topics. Thankfully I learned that all these things can and do work well together. Religious affiliation and spiritual beliefs are parts of our identities, and a culturally competent therapist will attend to them.
Growing up as a Black, Caribbean American in south central LA, church was on the weekly agenda! I’m talking Bible study, choir rehearsal, Sunday school, church service (maybe two) and the quintessential lunch after the afternoon service (I’m sorry, but nothing beats that Sunday meal at a Black church). Racially, culturally, ethnically, regionally, and financially, I was raised “in the church” and this came with certain beliefs and expectations. Many times, this meant that various concerns were said to be solved by prayer, fasting, and reading the Bible. What was often missing was the assurance that these things could (and maybe should) be combined with seeking out help when needed. Personally, I felt like my own mental health concerns were invalidated and trivialized when I was told to “just pray,” “take it to the Lord,” and “be strong.” These responses made me feel like I was doing something wrong! Like, I must be having these panic attacks because I don’t trust God enough! Apparently, feeling depressed was just the Devil messing with me. I must not be strong if I am struggling. And you know Black people don’t talk to strangers about our business! It took time and a deeper understanding of many complex issues to realize that I didn’t have to choose. I could pray AND go to therapy. Mental illness symptoms did not mean I didn’t have enough faith; it simply meant that I had a diagnosable condition that needed treatment. Now, as an experienced clinician, I ask each patient to tell me about their spiritual or religious identity. It is totally ok if it isn’t a salient identity for some people, but for others it is helpful to know how various beliefs and practices may influence presenting concerns and possible coping mechanisms. Whether it is polytheism, monotheism, atheism, agnosticism, and everything between, it is important. We have intersecting identities and not attending to clients’ beliefs would be the work of an unethical and incompetent therapist. So, yes, you can (and should) talk to your therapist about religion. Bring your full self into the room. -Dr. B