I’m seeing a self-proclaimed Christian therapist who is helping me deal with depression. Most of the times I feel like it’s a good fit. And although I obviously consider myself a “Christian” because I’m Mormon, some of her ideas about how my husband should be taking more of a leadership role in the home to fulfill his role as a “Christian man” and other things she has said about the Garden of Eden and how Eve ruined it for all of us, leave me feeling uncomfortable and awkward. Like she’s pushing her beliefs on to me and I don’t have those same interpretations of scripture. How do I know I can trust that I’m seeing a good therapist?
This is a great question. It’s so easy to pick up on religious bias when you are seeing somebody processionally who is not of your same faith background. But the truth of the matter is that happens in our own faith communities as well… and it’s difficult to tease out when someone is crossing unethical professional lines. Therapists are not supposed to project their religious bias or values on to clients. This goes against all the mental health professional “code of ethics,” and we are expected to go through a lot of training to avoid these dynamics. Yet I see breeches on this matter all the time. Whether it’s a secular therapist not watching their bias towards religious folks. Or religious therapists imposing their moral overlays on matters that affect mental health, parenting relationships, marriages, etc. Since many people only feel comfortable seeing someone from their own belief structure, which is understandable, it increases risk for blurred boundaries. This is a big reason why I founded the Mormon Mental Health Association, since I wanted to encourage culturally competent treatment with the acknowledgment that our own value systems can often get in the way of a client’s process if we are not diligent.
I recently met a friend who is not Mormon but is seeing a Mormon therapist in the area I live that maintains a private practice.
In a nutshell, my friend is seeing her therapist for a number of issues: among them are alcohol abuse, two prior DUI’s, relationship and commitment issues, and the recent exploration of her own potential homosexual orientation. Many of these issues are moral in nature for her therapist. Her past relationships with men, her difficulty making longer commitments and a recent potential romantic relationship with a woman, are moral issues with heavy spiritual ramifications according to her therapist.
My friend has indicated that she has at times felt judgment and guilt inducing shame from her therapist regarding her past decisions. She reports that these feelings contribute to her hesitation to really open up with her therapist about other things. And so we can now see how the therapeutic relationship has been compromised. This is what we call counter-transference in the professional field (the therapist is transferring her own issues on to the client) and crosses ethical guidelines.
I must acknowledge that the portion of events I am hearing are one-sided. I am unable to speak with my friend’s therapist, nor was I present in the sessions where the issues occurred.
However, we know through quite a bit of research that religious and cultural bias play a role in how therapy is conducted by professionals. And why it is so important to be aware of this phenomenon both as professionals and as consumers.
It is important that as we seek for professional help for the issues we are facing in our personal lives, that we look for those who will fit the following criteria:
1. Have credentials and background that support the work they do.
2. Have taken the time to be aware of personal religious/cultural bias by having had sufficient training in ethics.
3. Are open to your feedback when you share that you are having a negative experience due to personal bias you are picking up on.
4. Are not projecting their personal beliefs or standards of “health” on to their clients, which are not supported by the medical or mental health community.
5. Will be respectful of your spiritual/religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and the cultural traditions you come from.
6. Will not speak from a place where a God exists or does not exist.
There are many effective therapists, counselors and coaches who come from religious traditions and cultural backgrounds of their own; as there are many effective professionals who come from secular stances. The key is to find those who will honor your journey… honor your goals in the work you are doing… and be doing the best they can to offer best “standard of care” practices in their work. This can be tricky work if someone’s beliefs go against current medical knowledge. However, at Symmetry Solutions we go to great lengths to make sure this is a weekly topic of discussion and something we address at every supervisory session.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org and runs an online practice, Symmetry Solutions, which focuses on helping families and individuals with faith concerns, sexuality and mental health. She hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine, is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association and runs a sex education program, Sex Talk with Natasha. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.