Study: Why social workers aren't discussing religion and spirituality with clients

Posted on July 13, 2015

Photo: flickr

New research by a Baylor University professor shows that licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), who account for the largest number of clinically trained helping professionals, believe that discussions about their clients' religion and spirituality can often lead to improved health and mental health, but practitioners are not integrating these conversations into their counseling sessions.

"It's that big elephant in the room," said Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., assistant professor in Baylor's Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. "If we ignore it, we're ignoring a huge component of their lives that may be tied to the clinical issue."

Oxhandler worked with a team of researchers from the University of Houston. They surveyed 442 LCSWs across the United States for the study.

The survey revealed that the vast majority of LCSWs, with more than 80 percent responding favorably on most of the survey items, have positive attitudes regarding the integration of their clients' religion and spirituality into their discussions; are confident in their abilities to assess and discuss their clients' beliefs; and find it feasible to do so.

But they're not doing it.

Oxhandler offered a few possibilities for the disconnect, based on the survey, her research and her experience:

1. Both the practitioner and the client are willing to talk about religion and spirituality, but neither addresses it.

2. Social work students are not being trained adequately in the integration of religion and spirituality.

3. LCSWs fear that they might be seen as proselytizing, or don't know how to talk about their clients' beliefs.

Oxhandler said educators need to do a better job of training future social workers to engage in these conversations, ethically and effectively.

"It's important that we teach students how to do this from an evidence-based practice perspective, a perspective that really looks at what the research is saying about clients' religion and spirituality and what the research says about health and mental health outcomes," she said.

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Category(s):Mental Health Professions

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