BGSU psychologist puts spirituality research into practice in new book

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she had been suicidal and hospitalized many times over the previous 30 years. And in the first year she had been his client, Dr. Kenneth Pargament psychology, didn’t feel he had been much help.

Dr. Kenneth Pargament

Talking to him one day, hysterical, she wailed, “When will my suffering end?” She had told Pargament early on that she wasn’t particularly religious, but her lament struck him as almost biblical, so he asked where she turned for solace.

When she was hospitalized for the first time at age 14 and put in restraints, she thought she was going to die—until she felt a warm sensation in her chest that spread, she said, throughout her body. “I felt it was God talking to me,” telling me he would always be with me, Pargament recalls her saying. The feeling returned occasionally thereafter, each time with an assurance that she would be all right.

But she had never told anyone about her spiritual experiences during 30 years of therapy, and Pargament wondered why. “They already think I’m crazy,” she replied.

Also a nationally recognized researcher of religion’s role in people’s lives, Pargament rebuts his field’s skepticism of spirituality in his new book, Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred. The book is published by Guilford Press, which also published his first book, The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice, 10 years ago.

The intervening decade has seen a “sharp upsurge” in the study of spirituality, he notes, adding that the results are clear—religion plays an important part in shaping many people’s health and well-being.

While it has the potential to facilitate those things, religion can be part of a person’s problems as well, Pargament points out. For example, he explains, some people believe that God will take care of them if they lead “good lives.” They have no theology of pain and suffering, so when they encounter serious illness or other troubles, a spiritual dimension is added to their struggle. “Major crises can shake one’s spiritual foundation,” he says.

That spiritual dimension must be addressed to help people deal with their problems, but psychologists, who tend to be less religious than the general population, aren’t comfortable talking about spirituality and are apt to change the subject, according to Pargament.

They often want to explain spirituality in terms of presumably more basic issues, such as desire for the love of a parent, comfort, belonging or identity. In the process, they overlook the possibility that the yearning for the sacred is a primary motive—one that “can’t be explained away,” he says.

Most people are “looking for something that transcends themselves,” he maintains, calling spirituality “an irreducible part of life.” But scientists haven’t taken it seriously in and of itself, says Pargament, recalling the immunologist who asked him at a conference on spirituality, “Don’t you think we’re just talking about hormones here?” Getting health professionals to move beyond such stereotypes and biases is probably the biggest challenge in the field, he adds.

Discussions of religion with clients may be particularly helpful in evoking positive emotions such as hopefulness, gratitude and a sense of meaning. For many people, Pargament says, God is the “motivating force in their lives,” and tapping into that resource helps them deal with numerous problems. The book is designed to help psychologists put that and other research findings into practice.

Regardless of a person’s stand on religion, “no one’s neutral on it,” he notes. “That tells me there’s power in spirituality, and psychologists should take a long, hard look at it. When we overlook this vital part of people’s lives, we’re less than fully helpful to them.”

Pursuing a spiritual dialogue proved beneficial with his bipolar client, who has been hospitalized only once in the last five years. “She has made so much progress,” Pargament says, “and spirituality has been a key part of it.

“Helping people identify and draw on their spiritual resources makes a lot of sense. We should be learning how to do it.”

August 27, 2007