“So, are you a Christian counselor?” That is probably the most common question I am asked when I say that I am a therapist at Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute. I usually respond that I am a therapist who works to integrate a broad understanding of spirituality into my treatment with clients that always begins with the spiritual beliefs of my clients but is undeniably grounded in my own spiritual tradition. This response usually leads to less clarity, both for my conversation partner and for me for a variety of reasons. “Christian Counselor” is an easy phrase, and I wish I could come up with an equally succinct way of explaining what it means to me to integrate spirituality into mental health treatment.
A spiritually integrated approach to treatment always begins with the spiritual beliefs of my clients. As a licensed and certified counselor, I have an ethical obligation to respect the beliefs of my clients and to avoid imposing my beliefs on them. For me, this goes beyond an ethical obligation however and becomes the heart of what psychotherapy is all about. Etymologically, psychotherapy is “soul treatment,” and if I am to take seriously my responsibility as a “soul treater,” then operating out of a profound place of respect for and curiosity about the soul of my client is not an add on to treatment, it is the onus of treatment. Understanding, respecting, and drawing on the strengths of my clients’ worldviews, beliefs, and values would be essential to providing competent psychotherapy even if I didn’t work in a place with “pastoral” in the title.
This approach to treatment is also rooted in my own spiritual tradition. Attempting to divorce myself from myself in providing treatment to clients would be disastrous both for my clients and for me. Without careful attention to my own beliefs and values, I would almost certainly unwittingly end up imposing them on clients in a variety of ways that would be both unhelpful and unethical. So I am rooted in a tradition that influenced by Buddhist thought and practice. I am a father, husband, son, brother, uncle, and friend. All of these form the basis of my own spiritual identity, in which my approach to treatment is rooted.
Undeniably, spirituality is a murky topic. Spirituality as a word has a checkered past and, although currently in vogue, means so many things to so many people that it really means very little. I am convinced that in order for spirituality to be a valid component of legitimate mental health treatment, it has to be carefully defined, and it has to be both broad enough to incorporate the myriad spiritual worldviews that clients bring and belief system of each individual client. I have spent the better part of my career attempting to develop such a definition, but that is another post for another day. Stay tuned.