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The relationship between faith and therapy

Young Black man hiking at sunset

I grew up on the south side of Chicago, where I saw an abundance of intimate and family relationships deteriorate or never materialize while longing for a lasting marriage and family of my own.

Eventually I discovered the field of marriage and family therapy, which taught me what I needed to learn to maintain a healthy relationship, with the understanding that I would use that knowledge to help others do the same. Multiple degrees and licenses later, I’ve built a marriage I’m proud of and helped empower many other couples along the way.

However, I also realized early on that when people in my community were struggling to identify and resolve their relationship challenges, the majority of them did not seek the support of a mental health professional. Instead they turned to local pastors and other faith leaders. Despite their genuine intent and unique skills, those leaders knew they weren’t equipped to provide the same support as a trained mental health clinician.

This doesn’t make either role better than the other when it comes to offering guidance. Instead, it highlights the opportunity for professionals in both roles to work together to provide a wraparound level of support to people who need it.

What faith and mental health care have in common

One of the barriers to this partnership is the belief that faith and mental health care can’t coexist, as if they inherently contradict each other. In reality, they have much in common. For example, therapists and faith leaders are both committed to helping people understand the impact of the past on the present, live their best lives today, and make healthy decisions to increase the likelihood of a heathy future.

Specific beliefs may lead faith leaders to draw conclusions about the factors contributing to someone’s struggles, as well as shape their idea of how a healthy present and future might look. Therapists are trained to work within a person’s belief system and help them identify the necessary steps to achieve their goals.

The challenge for therapists

Another obstacle to the integration of faith and mental health care is the fear that a therapist’s faith beliefs—or lack of them—will get in the way of their ability to offer unbiased support. That’s a reasonable concern, because therapists are human, and their biases can influence their decision-making and how they show up for others. But this is less a conflict between faith and mental health care and more a challenge for the therapist.

To do their work well, mental health professionals must have enough cultural competence to be able to set aside their personal preferences in favor of their client’s needs. They must also have enough self-esteem to support a client’s choices that may not be consistent with their own faith beliefs, as long as those choices are consistent with the client’s faith beliefs and the client’s goals for healthy living.

Caring for the body, mind, and spirit

The final roadblock is the common belief that looking for mental health support is a sign of one’s lack of faith—as if faith alone should be enough for a true believer. This mindset often prevents people from getting care that will genuinely benefit them. To those who hesitate to seek care for that reason, I’d offer this: If someone can have faith but still see a medical doctor to care for their physical body, then they can also have a strong faith and see a therapist in order to keep their thoughts and emotions healthy.

Faith leaders can help you establish a hopeful vision for your short-term and long-term experiences, and mental health professionals can help you identify the internal and external barriers to achieving those goals. A therapist can also guide you in creating a plan to overcome any obstacles, and they can join your faith leader in providing emotional encouragement throughout your journey toward growth. There can never be a monopoly on encouragement—affirmation increases resilience and hope in good times and bad.

Creating a safe emotional space

I’ve heard it said, “If you’re going to pray, then don’t complain. And if you’re going to complain, then don’t pray.” However, therapy isn’t synonymous with complaining and lacking faith. Instead, it has the potential to be a safe emotional space where people can wrestle with everything from thoughts, feelings, and trauma to intimate partner relationships and their own faith beliefs.

Mental health support isn’t intended to provide “right” answers that risk conflicting with faith beliefs. When it’s done well, therapy encourages people to make the best decisions for themselves, rather than having their choices dictated by the therapist. Mental health professionals who value faith’s emphasis on ethics, hope, determination, and motivation can be an invaluable source of support for clients of faith and for faith leaders.

Whether you have strong faith beliefs, no faith beliefs at all, or something in between, you can benefit from working with a skilled therapist who takes the time to learn about your value system, identify your goals, and empower you to make healthy decisions.

If you’re looking for support from a therapist, faith-based or not, visit our directory to find a licensed professional near you today.

About the author

Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDiv, is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow and a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 20 years of experience counseling individuals, couples, and families from a variety of cultural backgrounds. His training experience includes guest lecturing and facilitating national seminars, as well as being an adjunct instructor and supervisor for aspiring mental health and other helping professionals. He is also the author of “Diversity in Clinical Practice: A Practical & Shame-Free Guide to Reducing Cultural Offenses & Repairing Cross-Cultural Relationships.”