Religion and spirituality have played major roles in the lives of African-Americans since the days of slavery and before. The connection with God has been significant in helping individuals and families cope with loss, mistreatment, and the hardships of life. It would stand to reason because of this long history of “depending and relying on the Lord” that we continue to seek our religion and spirituality to help cope with our physical and mental health illnesses. We have come to seek out and rely on our spiritual leaders to help us connect more with God so that he can alleviate and heal our pains.
It is important, however to recognize that religion and spirituality—although used interchangeably—are different. Religion usually refers to socially-based beliefs and traditions, often associated with ritual and ceremony, whereas spirituality generally refers to a deep-seated individual sense of connection through which each person’s life is experienced as contributing to a valued and greater “whole,” together with a sense of belonging and acceptance. Spirituality is expressed through art, poetry and myth, as well as religious practice. Both religion and spirituality typically emphasize the depth of meaning and purpose in life.
Since slavery, we always believed we would be delivered. We’d walk around our churches with drums beating, shouting and crying, but soon those tears would turn to shouts of joy! Spirituality is an ever-present, sometimes dominant part of the human experience. Therefore, spirituality can be seen as integral to health, not only in terms of a cure for a disease or illness but also as a sense of wholeness or wellbeing.
It has been well-documented that spirituality and religion are key sources of strength and tenacity for African-Americans. The results of a recent study on spirituality among African-American women in recovery from substance abuse revealed that spirituality—a key component of African personality and culture—had a significant correlation with positive mental health outcomes for these patients.
Here are some scientifically-proven benefits of ones’ spirituality in terms of coping with mental illnesses and/or emotional issues:
- Support, prayers and visits from religious groups are helpful.
- Independent meditation proves helpful—even for those who didn’t believe in prayer or God.
- Belief in God or support from other members of their faith helps them overcome suicidal thoughts.
- Some individuals felt at least God noticed and they were therefore not alone.
- People were comforted by the idea of a loving and forgiving God who values each individual.
- Others felt their spirituality gave them courage, inspiration, strength and patience.
So, then how do religion and spirituality come into play in therapy? For clients looking or hoping to involve their religion or spirituality, it’s important the counselor creates a comfortable environment for doing so—and they don’t have to share the same religious beliefs to do so. They should take the client’s beliefs and values into consideration, whilst remaining aware of their own biases, to best help the patient: “Religious people who seek counseling from a secular source instead of their pastor or faith leader may feel an initial sense of guilt. It’s important to normalize this in the therapy room and let the client know that religion and counseling can be very compatible,” Alisha Powell, licensed clinical social worker, explains. “Ask questions and explore the client’s values and importance of faith in their life. Allow the client the space that they need to process whatever is going on and reframe it in terms of their faith. Listen intently and summarize common themes that you hear. Ask about social supports and talk to the client about the importance of community and the possible benefit of therapy,” she says.