In my first six months as a predoctoral psychology intern at McLean Hospital, I was approached by at least 10 patients asking essentially the same question: Can I speak to you about God? They wanted to discuss their problems not in psychological terms but in spiritual ones. I guess the yarmulke on my head suggested I was an appropriate person to offer guidance.
I was not. I am a practicing Orthodox Jew and a clinical scientist, but I am no theologian. At the time, I did not even have my supervisors’ permission to speak to patients about their spiritual lives. I typically responded by suggesting the patient ask his case manager about a chaplaincy visit, though I knew the hospital did not employ an on-site chaplain.
It was hardly surprising that patients wanted to speak about God. Psychological science has consistently shown that spirituality can shape how someone thinks. “Religion and spirituality have the ability to promote or damage mental health,” a 2014 review of research into spirituality and mental health concluded. “This potential demands an increased awareness of religious matters by practitioners in the mental health field as well as ongoing attention in psychiatric research.” Why has this been neglected?