Sunday, June 18, 2006

The abyss between the camps of psychology and religion 

Thank you for writing something I've often thought about, although not exactly as described below. And all of this relates to an idea of founding my own church, or theology if you will - since there isn't one that matches my knowledge and beliefs - and I find all that is spiritual or psychology precepts-related that I've come into contact with have things that I share and others that I find profoundly problematic or misguided.

The situation in contemporary America and the West is very similar. The religious leader may present a biblical story in a sermon. But he/she is typically unwilling or unable to apply it to the real-life problems of a member of his/her congregation. If someone approaches a religious leader with a serious personal problem, the leader is likely to refer to a card in the upper right-hand drawer of his desk with the phone number of a local psychotherapist. The therapist, however, is largely ignorant of, if not antagonistic to religion, often in a manner incongruent with the patient’s own orientation.

Several studies, for example, have found that 90 percent of patients believe in a transcendent God, compared to only about 40 percent of clinical psychologists. This is a huge disconnect! Most mental health professionals generally avoid any reference to, or recognition of their patient’s religious beliefs and the deep influence of these beliefs on patients’ lives. Few mental health professionals fully incorporate a patient’s religious beliefs into a treatment plan.

Likewise, although nearly 90 percent of all Americans will contend with at least one significant mental-health problem during their adult lives, only a handful of religious leaders have been trained to provide even basic mental health care. This “disconnect" seems most evident when a single parishioner or parish family approaches a religious leader for help with a mental-health issue. Few religious leaders feel comfortable in this area, and most generally refer the matter to someone in the mental-health profession.

There are a number of possible reasons why mental-health professionals are resistant toward religion, while religious leaders are resistant to the insights and findings of the mental-health field. For one, the fields of religion and mental health have historically been in conflict with each other, with psychology/psychiatry allying itself to science and medicine. Secondly, psychology/psychiatry often has approached issues of spirituality at a highly superficial level, treating spiritual development as something foreign to the development of the individual personality. Third, issues regarding life’s meaning have often been delegated to the theological realm. Fourth, many of the biological causes of mental illness have been delegated to psychology and psychiatry. Finally, as mentioned before, much of traditional psychotherapy has been based on classical Greek rather than biblical foundation legends.

"For all these reasons, many potential patients eschew traditionally trained mental-health practitioners in search of spiritual salvation from a variety of new age practitioners. However, many of these practitioners actually espouse pagan forms of spirituality, quite antagonistic to biblical beliefs–for example, talking sticks, crystals, astrologists, taro card-readers, and even witches.

"Whatever the reason for this disconnect, individuals and families suffer more than necessary as a result. And we believe that religious leaders and the mental health profession also suffer from this gap. We will attempt to treat this lacuna in this column. We will compare biblical versus Greek stories of creation, individual development, couple relations, parent-child relations, as well as issues of self-esteem, obligations, decisions, commandments, anger various disorders, family problems, parental blessings , good and bad development, recovery from misfortune and disability, and suicide prevention.

"We intend this column to serve as a meeting ground between religion and mental health.

Kalman J. Kaplan, Ph.D., is professor of psychology, Wayne State University, and clinical professor, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois College of Medicine.

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