At a recent engagement encounter retreat, one of the many Catholic marriage prep programs offered to engaged couples, a couple inquired about marriage counseling “in case we ever have need for it in the future.” The response given by the resident “Catholic psychologist” was that it was “paramount that they find a Catholic psychologist who’ll be sensitive to their religious perspective.”
A puzzled couple wondered why this was case? What do religion and mental health have to do with one another? Didn’t Freud hate religion? What do the expressions of religious tradition have to do with our psychological well being? Does my shrink need to be Catholic if I am a Catholic or Jewish if I am a Jew?
There are basically three different types of counseling that most people seek in need of assistance: psychotherapy, pastoral counseling, and spiritual direction. The difference between the three is on both their central focus and their approach to therapy.
Psychotherapy is traditional talk therapy. Simply put it’s a weekly or monthly fifty minute session where you talk with a psychologist who sits and analyzes your behavior. The psychologist can come from one particular school of thought (a Jungian psychologist would base his or her approach on the theories of Carl Jung), or can use a hybrid approach based on many different theories. The focus of psychotherapy is on mental healing or getting past a certain conflict in one’s life.
Similarly, pastoral counseling can be nearly identical with one glaring exception. Often people arrive at the door of a priest or lay minister looking for direction. The minister can and should use psychological principles to assist them in helping the individual get past neurotic behavior that troubles them in their daily activities at home or work. While the focus is clearly on helping the person get past their issues, the counselor may bring in a religious element in assisting the person. For example, a married couple may be having problems in their relationship. The counselor will help them develop a better relationship with each other in terms of how they see God working in their lives, but the central focus is on healing the relationship with one another.
Spiritual Direction is a completely different form of counseling that is focused only on a person’s relationship with God and not on any particular issue. Where do we see God working in our lives or not working in our day to day activities? The focus here is not issue-based, rather it is only on relationship between the self and God.
Regardless of which counseling approach one chooses, a recent survey done by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors indicates that most people believe that their mental well-being is intimately linked to the spiritual dimension of their lives. Specifically, the study found that:
· 83 percent of those studied felt their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health.
· 75 percent of respondents say it is important to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.
· 69 percent believe it to be important to see a professional counselor who represents spiritual values and beliefs if they had a serious problem that required counseling.
So God does have a role in our mental health. Spirituality has often been looked at as a crutch by psychologists but it is gradually gaining respect both in the psychiatric community and in the general public. Some people use a combination of approaches and find it rewarding. Though people traditionally think of counseling in terms of psychotherapy, with the success of twelve step programs (which employs very clear spiritual principles—e.g. a belief in a higher power) as well as other forms of counseling and therapy, it is now becoming nearly impossible to distinguish our psychological health from our spiritual well-being.