Spirituality can be a difficult concept to define. It’s similar to the concept of time, we know what it means until we are asked to define it. In general, spirituality often involves a dimension of searching, of seeking—whether it is for meaning, existential answers, or a connection with something greater than ourselves. But how should spirituality be handled in the context of therapy?
In other words, although spirituality may be important for some clients, exactly how a therapist addresses it can fall within different realms—namely legal, professional and clinical realms. It remains up to the clinical practitioner to adhere to his or her code of ethics, legal, and clinical best practices.
Len Sperry from Florida Atlantic University recently published an article in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice titled, “Assessing Spiritually Sensitive Clinical Practice: Some Evaluation Guidelines.” In the article, Sperry lays down a foundation for therapists as to how to deal with the spiritual concerns of clients while navigating through the tricky legal, ethical, and professional jungle. The author writes: “As mental health provides become increasing sensitive to the religious and spiritual concerns of their patients, they need to know more about these concerns and how to best address them.”
Sperry distinguishes between “basic spiritual care” and “specialized spiritual care.” The former, which can be administered by professionals and nonprofessionals alike, involves no particular specialized training and addresses “. . . an individual’s relationship to the transcendent and spiritual needs resulting from that relationship.” Specialized spiritual care, according to Sperry, involves four different types:
1. Pastoral care provided by a chaplain or ordained minister
2. Pastoral counseling
3. Spiritual direction
4. Spiritually oriented psychotherapy
Moreover, when administered specialized spiritual care, therapists must remain aware of specific considerations. These considerations, according to Sperry, include ethical considerations (such as informed consent), competence and scope of practice, and organizational ethics. “Case law is replete with cases of health professionals who have been fired, sanctioned, or convicted for providing unwanted spiritual treatment to patients.” Professional counselors (social workers, marriage and family therapists) would do well to review their code of ethics, keeping in mind that the therapist should always be cautious not to interject her beliefs (whether religious, spiritual, political or otherwise) onto her clients.
Sperry lays out “evaluation guidelines for assessing the adequacy of spiritual care”:
• Evaluate the extent to which the four functions of spiritual care are met
• Evaluate the extent to which applicable professional ethical considerations are met
• Evaluate the extent to which applicable organizational ethical considerations are met
In summary, when addressing the spiritual concerns of clients, mental health professionals, as put by Sperry, “ . . . are faced with a number of professional ethical and organizational ethical considerations.” In order to navigate through the myriad of legal, ethical, and professional concerns, it may remain best for professionals to stick to a set of proven guidelines to help inform their practice.
Finally, addressing the spiritual concerns of clients remains an ever-evolving area within counseling, an area that will surely continue to present challenges as well as opportunities for professional counselors and clients alike.
Sperry, L. (2016). Assessing Spirituality Sensitive Clinical Practice: Some Evaluation Guidelines. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3(3), 167 – 170.