According to Pew data research, today more than eight in 10 people in the world identify with a religious group. And many individuals take on a form of religious practice in their day-to-day lives: a prayer, a Hail Mary, or even ensuring the absence of leavened bread during Passover.
But what happens when individuals of these faith traditions take on an obsessive or “mal-adaptive” nature – preventing the individual from having a full and productive life?
Dr. William Hathaway, dean of Regent University’s School of Psychology & Counseling, explored this topic at the 45th Annual European Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (EABCT) Congress in Jerusalem, Israel.
Hathaway served as a moderator for a panel titled “Practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with Religious Patients in Christian, Muslim and Jewish Communities,” along with experts from Harvard Medical School, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Calgary.
The panel focused on the CBT for religious clients, focusing mainly on the Christian, Islamic and Jewish faith traditions. This is a topic that remains relatively unexplored in the traditionally secular realm of psychology.
“Much of the field isn’t aware of how important these issues are to people,” said Hathaway. “I think that’s an area that we can help correct.”
The disconnect between religion and psychology dates back to the early 1920s, Hathaway explained. Experts in the field, even the father of modern psychology himself, Sigmund Freud, viewed religion as a mere coping mechanism for its celebrants.
“They regarded it as kind of mental illness. It was an infantile wish that we preserve for our father in the sky who can take care of us forever,” said Hathaway. “In a majority of our cases right now where we see psychologists practicing around the world, they don’t even ask questions about the topic – even though it might be the most important thing in a client’s life.”
Now, studies show that ignoring a patient’s faith is too important to ignore.
Hathaway shared an example of a patient he worked with who battled ADHD, the son of a Jewish family. His parents had learned to manage his behavioral issues in the classroom and other settings, with one exception:
“They stopped going to their religious community, because he was too disruptive. They couldn’t leave him in the nursery; they couldn’t bring him into the service with them,” he said. “It was the first time they’d become tearful.”
According to Hathaway, the family never brought up the issue in treatment, or even mentioned their affiliation with faith.
“They said, ‘We didn’t think we were supposed to talk to you about that,'” said Hathaway. The panel explored ways of CBT with religiously diverse patients; connecting the theory with an area of a patient’s life that may have otherwise gone ignored.
“The approach we were talking about was an approach that would work with any faith tradition,” said Hathaway. “We believe it’s important for mental health professionals not to shy away from a person’s faith-journey if it’s important to them.”
He’s careful to explain that this doesn’t mean he evangelizes his clients, or even brings up the topic of religion for every case; only that if faith is an important aspect of a client’s life, a mental health professional should work to explore it just like every other area.
This sort of treatment is something that a vast majority of mental health professionals have a limited training in, if any at all.
“So, coming to a place like Regent will give you an opportunity to be better prepared to work with people of faith, or people struggling with faith issues,” said Hathaway. “That’s one less obstacle of the Gospel producing fruit in their lives. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they’ll become a Christian. But at least if they hear the Gospel, their worries won’t be distracting them from it.”
Learn more about Regent University’s School of Psychology & Counseling.