What does spirituality have to do with mental health? Recent studies have shown that the two are more intertwined than many would imagine.

It’s becoming clear to mental health practitioners that spiritual well-being is a central need for so many people. Spiritual health, nurtured through practices such as therapy and spiritual counseling, is essential for overall wellness. As a result, more and more licensed therapists are integrating spirituality and/or religious principles with their clinical practice.

This article covers the basics of spiritual counseling. We consider the differences between religion and spirituality, how this practice differs from normal psychotherapy and what the science says about its effectiveness. We also discuss the limitations of spiritual counseling, the mental health conditions for which it works best and how you can find the right spiritual counselor for your individual needs. Read on to learn more.

Spiritual Counseling: What is it?

Spiritual therapy goes beyond traditional forms of psychotherapy by tapping into the importance of religion or spirituality within a person’s life. It aims to integrate standard therapy techniques with religious/spiritual practices and wisdom. Typically, spiritual counseling is practiced by a licensed health care professional – a psychologist, social worker or nurse – who has pursued additional training. Many spiritual counselors also have a background in theology.

Spirituality vs Religious Beliefs

Spirituality and religion are both terms that are used to describe a person’s beliefs and practices regarding their relationship with a greater power. But what’s the difference between them? First, people who belong to different religions worship specific deities. Examples include God/Jesus, HaShem, Muhammad or Shiva.

In the case of spirituality, on the other hand, this higher power is described less specifically. For example, a spiritual person may worship nature, their inner essence or a broader sense of interconnectedness between all humanity. Spirituality is often less structured than religion in the sense that there are no formally prescribed belief systems or practices.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that spirituality and religion also overlap in many regards. For many people, religion is, in fact, an expression of their spirituality. Whether you’re spiritual, religious or a combination of the two, this article will explore how a consideration of your beliefs in this regard are important for your psychological wellbeing. For the purposes of this article, therefore, the terms religion and spirituality will be used interchangeably and used broadly to refer to one’s belief system in a higher power.

Do I Have to Be Religious to Benefit From Spiritual Counseling?

No, you do not need to be religious to benefit from spiritual counseling. This form of therapy is available to anyone, even those who do not identify as religious. It’s also possible to consult with a spiritual counselor who has religious beliefs that differ greatly from your own.

When might a non-religious person seek out this form of therapy? Spiritual counseling can be used to help people who are unsure whether they are in fact spiritual or religious. This form of therapy can help a person clarify their own spiritual beliefs and help establish whether they want to integrate religion into their lives to a greater extent.

Also keep in mind that as long as your spiritual counselor is simultaneously a licensed health professional, they are bound by the same ethical standards that any regular health professional adheres to. This means that ethically, they are expected to not “push” their beliefs on you, but rather to be guided by your own needs during therapy. We speak more about the ethics of spiritual counseling below. But first, in what way does spiritual counseling differ from traditional therapy?

What is the Difference Between Spiritual Counseling and Psychotherapy?

The major difference lies in the fact that psychotherapy shies away from discussing religious topics. From the traditional psychoanalytic perspective, for example, it is frowned upon to discuss religion and for the therapist to reveal to the client their own spiritual persuasions (or other personal information, for that matter). For spiritual counselors, on the other hand, explicit discussion of religious topics is central to the treatment. Additionally, those pursuing a career in spiritual counseling may need to meet specific licensing requirements similar to those in mental health counseling, which include necessary education, practical experience, and accreditation by relevant bodies.

What is Pastoral Counseling?

The term ‘pastor’ is a biblical reference to a shepherd: someone bestowed with the skills and responsibility to guide and protect others. In essence and practice, pastoral counseling is the same thing as spiritual counseling. However, there is a specific accreditation program which one must pursue in order to be registered as a certified pastoral counselor.

Pastoral counselors are frequently sectarian – i.e. belonging to a certain religion or denomination. In such cases, spiritual counselors may be Priests, Rabbis or Imams, for example. As such, pastoral counselors have theological training in addition to mental health-care training.

However, today pastoral counselors may also be non-denominational, meaning that they don’t adhere to any single or specific religion.

What Happens in a Spiritual Counseling Session?

There is no standard procedure for a spiritual counseling session: it will play out in different ways for different people. What determines how a spiritual counseling session is conducted? This will be informed by your therapist’s training and beliefs. In other words, due to differences in religious beliefs, psychotherapeutic modality preferences and personality styles, different counselors are likely to work in different ways. The way that therapy proceeds will also depend on your specific needs for the process with a consideration of your spirituality and religious background. Practical tools are often used to help clients connect with their inner wisdom.

Techniques Used in Spiritual Counseling

Denominational (or sectarian) counselors might incorporate specific religious practices into therapy. For example, if both you and your counselor are Christian, prayer might form an important part of your therapy. This form of counseling might also focus on practicing forgiveness or referring to the wisdom of scriptures. Non-denominational counselors, on the other hand, may draw on spiritual practices such as meditation, connecting with nature or yoga. These techniques can support individuals on their spiritual journey, helping them navigate personal development and self-awareness.

Does Spiritual Counseling Work?

While some say that psychotherapy is based on science while spiritual counseling is not, this is a misconception. Spiritual counselors use evidence-based recommendations and best practice guidelines, just like any other mental health professional. What does the science say?

While there is a need for more studies to be conducted, evidence suggests that spiritual counseling does in fact work, bringing clients increased levels of emotional and psychological wellbeing. If you’d like to take a closer look at the research that’s been done, some of the relevant studies are listed below, under resources.

What Kinds of Concerns is Spiritual Counseling Best For?

Spiritual counseling can help people cope with a wide range of disorders and challenges. Research suggests that positive outcomes have been seen in people with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Spiritual counseling can also help people in coping with schizophrenia, medical conditions, and grief. Finally, spiritual counseling can help with substance use and addiction. The famous 12-step (or AA) program for treating alcoholism and other addictions is centered upon religious principles.

Beyond specific disorders, spiritual counseling can help to promote personal growth. It may be useful if you feel that you have become spiritually disconnected or if you’re unsure about the role that you want religion to play in your life.

How Are Spiritual Counseling Specialists Trained? Understanding Spiritual Counseling Certification

Spiritual counseling is an additional specialization which one would pursue as a registered psychologist, counselor, social worker, nurse or other healthcare professional. The spiritual counseling certification curriculum includes developing foundational competencies such as personal interspirituality, embodiment of sacred presence and service, respect and inclusion of others, personal ethical behavior, and facilitation of spiritual growth. The American Institute of Health Care Professionals offers a certification program for spiritual counseling. This program requires participants to have completed 320 hours of education on spiritual counseling in order to be certified; from there, continued education is necessary in order to stay licensed. Additionally, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors provides accreditation which includes an additional 125 hours of supervised practice.

How to Find a Therapist

An online search should help you in locating an accredited spiritual counselor near you. Alternatively, ask friends, family or members of your spiritual community for recommendations – often, the best way to find a skilled counselor is through word of mouth. Your doctor (or any other health professional) may also be able to point you in the right direction or even assist with a referral. Finally, if you subscribe to a specific religion, speak to your Imaam, Priest or Rabbi about the best way forward. Spiritual counselors often work in diverse settings, including non-profit organizations, faith-based entities, and community outreach programs.

What Should I be Looking for in a Spiritual Counselor?

Ensure that your spiritual counselor is a registered health professional in addition to their religious affiliations. This will ensure that they practice in an ethical manner and prioritize your needs in therapy. While most people seek-out a counselor that shares similar religious beliefs, this is not strictly necessary. Finally, try to find a therapist who you would feel comfortable opening up to – the stronger the relationship between you becomes, the more likely you are to see positive results.

Questions to Ask a Potential Spiritual Counselor

  • With which professional boards are you registered?

  • Are you certified as a spiritual counselor?

  • Are you licensed as a mental health professional?

  • What are your religious beliefs?

  • Does it matter if we have differing spiritual views?

  • Would you describe yourself as denominational or non-denominational?

  • How can spiritual counseling help me?

  • How long will treatment last?

  • What are your rates?

  • Will sessions be covered by my health insurance?

  • When will we meet and how often will sessions take place?

Find a Spiritual Counselor Now

While spiritual counseling is steadily growing in popularity, not all therapists incorporate religion into their practice and you may find it difficult to find someone near you who does. Fortunately, thanks to technological developments over the past few years, more and more licensed therapists are practicing online. This means that you now have access to a far bigger pool of counselors and are more likely to find the right person for your needs.

Thrive Talk is an online mental health platform that allows people to pursue therapy from the comfort of their own homes. All our therapists are fully qualified and licensed to practice. Many members of the Thrive Talk team are experienced and familiar with spiritual counseling. By following the link to our sign-up page, you can start the straightforward process of getting matched with someone who can provide the specific sort of spiritual counseling that you need.

Concerns/Limitations of Spiritual Counseling

What are some of the potential pitfalls of spiritual counseling? Like any other form of therapy, spiritual counseling has the potential to be practiced unethically. For example, it would be potentially unethical for, say, your priest whom you have known for years to suddenly become your therapist as well. This is due to a principle called dual relationships, whereby a therapist should not treat a person that they already know in another context, because this could negatively affect the therapy’s outcomes.

Furthermore, as a spiritual counselor it is important to respect a client’s beliefs without pressuring them into adopting new religious beliefs. A spiritual counselor may also run into an ethical dilemma if, for example, there is a conflict between one’s spiritual/religious duties and one’s responsibilities as a licensed health practitioner. Ultimately, to avoid such ethical pitfalls a spiritual counselor must ensure that the best interests of their client are always prioritized.

Finding a Deeper Sense of Meaning Through Your Spiritual Journey and Spiritual Counseling

Historically, religion and therapy have not been the best of friends. For Freud, religion represented a pathological tendency that required treatment. In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists intentionally tried to distance psychology from religion because they wanted to preserve psychology as a science. In some sense it’s surprising, then, that spiritual counseling has taken off in such a big on way.

On the other hand – is it really that surprising? Psychological health goes hand-in-hand with spiritual wellbeing. Data from the Pew Research Center says that nearly 9 out of 10 people in the U.S. hold some form of religious or spiritual beliefs. Spiritual counseling is the adaptation that traditional therapy has had to make to cater for this integral aspect of people’s lives. Therapy can only do so much without addressing your deepest beliefs about a higher power. This article has covered the basic information that you need to know about spiritual counseling. You are now able to take steps to find a deeper sense of meaning in life – as well as improved mental health – through spiritual counseling.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings

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