Reflections on Clinical Psychology and Spirituality

“It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.” - Scott Peck

We gathered together to wrestle with the intersection of clinical psychology and spirituality. This blog post provides a compilation of words of wisdom that emerged from our conversations during Fall 2019. If a topic intrigues you, connect with us to expand the discussion.

Bias, Stereotypes, and Spirituality

“Social psychology theories describe trends in human behavior. These theories are constructed from empirical data, comparing large samples of participants. Typically, there is an environmental manipulation, means are established for the experimental and control group, and inferential statistics are used to determine whether there is a significant difference on a particular behavior or attitude. Theories that are well-established occur with a significant magnitude across many different cultures. Social psychology theories describe what humans do on average and by default within particular conditions. Although social psychology theories do not establish how any particular human will behave in a specific circumstance, the recorded trends (e.g., stereotypes and group dynamics) present ethical dilemmas for the human race.”

“One particular theory describes that a person often thinks themselves better compared to their neighbor, particularly when it comes to morality. It served as a reminder that we have to be cognizant of our bias towards ourselves and to approach each person in humility.”

“Differentiating between ourselves and others can operate at a number of levels, and with varying degrees of ethical behavior. At the most basic level, humans identify with their own group in order to survive and form meaningful connections. This is not wrong in itself, but if our thought process ends here we are at risk of inaccurately stereotyping other groups (and thereby potentially making enemies of them or missing out on learning from them or even making them our allies) and/or not critically evaluating and observing our own group. Jesus’s behavior and instruction calls us to deep engagement with our neighbors, and his definition of neighbors is supernaturally wide! This call can convince us that we can’t engage with EVERYONE so we elect to engage with no one. Wrong choice. Or, we can collapse our personal boundaries and become like that horrible children’s book The Giving Tree where the tree is stripped down to nothing but a stump. Also, wrong choice. Lastly, we can live in the Spirit so that we are plugged into a deep source of Power that feeds us as we gently and humbly engage with others, especially those who are vastly different. Believing that God goes before us and is working in the lives of even our enemies can soften our hard boundaries and help us to be flexible in encountering strangers. The Spirit also gives us wisdom to name and reject truly dangerous things in our own group and in others.”

Exploring Psychopharmacology

“Exploring psychotropic drugs and their intersection with spirituality, we stumbled across some common themes including the stigma of mental illness in the church, the interconnectedness of the mind, body, and spirit, and the glorification of God even in our mental suffering. In the first article we read, the author was appalled at the rates of depression in the church and implied perhaps a deficit of faith. Why do we need to rely on Prozac to feel well? Can’t we just rely on God? Yet, in the second article, the author himself admitted to using Zoloft—not as a cure but rather, as a tool. We then dove into a discussion surrounding the mind and the body. These two entities are not mutually exclusive parts of ourselves, but they overlap and influence one another in exponentially complex ways. And to make our human condition even more complex, our spirituality is intertwined so intimately with our mind and body. Finally, we watched a video in which a Christian psychiatrist was interviewed regarding psychotropic medication. He explained simply and gracefully that psychotropic medications, in the right context as tools and not cures, can help us to glorify God by decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or psychosis. However, the major barrier, we determined, was the fear of the unknown as many people in the church do not know the mechanism of these mysterious (or magical) pills. We can’t talk about it sometimes. We feel ashamed or scared of judgment. What if I just don’t have enough faith or I’m not “good enough” as a Christian? We discussed the need to make ourselves vulnerable to our church family, admitting sometimes when we are struggling and what has been helpful. This can aid in lifting the veil of mystery surrounding the psychotropic medications.The depression feels so spiritual or psychological―how can a physical pill be helpful? Does this invalidate my experience as merely an imbalance of chemicals? Although mental illness has a physical component, it also affects our psychological and spiritual well-being.”

“Who is responsible for informing the public about the efficacy and side effects of particular drugs? Is the treating physician responsible or is the consumer partly responsible? It appears that it is more difficult to make an informed decision when these drugs are stigmatized and conversations are stifled.”

“Research has shown that the best use of psychotropic drugs is in combination with counseling. This finding has the potential to alleviate the fear that a drug may become a crutch or an idol. Psychotropic drugs are not meant to be a cure, but rather they can allow a person into a state of mind in which to engage the issues that often are comorbid or even correlated with their psychological state. The mind, body, and spirit seem to be interrelated, and as such it makes sense to engage each aspect in the healing process.”


“The extent to which people assume addiction is a moral failure may depend on the degree of agency attributed to the particular type of addiction. The moral implications of addiction are also complicated by the fact that addictions often start during childhood (e.g., smoking).”

“I was lucky enough to TA for a professor whose specialty is the history of drugs. I learned tones from him. There are a lot of theories surrounding addiction, and who adheres to them and when tells historians a lot about the values, fears and experiences of the people who hold them. Moral failure, the disease model and the social model all try to explain why some people become addicted to substances. We discussed that substance use can certainly contain poor moral choices, although not necessarily by the person who eventually becomes addicted. Someone can encounter controlled substances via bad decisions like hard partying or a wish to disconnect from the outside world. Both of these are not recommended for Christians. However, others can be introduced to addictive substances without their consent. People who are trafficked for sex or violence (child soldiers) are often given drugs against their will or in such coersive circumstances that they cannot possibly give adequate consent. Addiction to medical pain killers is huge right now, and can begin with an injury and a doctor’s prescription. During warfare, the intense trauma and boredom motivates many soldiers to take drugs, including heroine (Vietnam), cocaine (WWI), and of course cigarettes are important currency in every possible armed conflict! It is important to remember that we don’t know how a person came into contact with illicit drugs, so that we don’t snap to a judgement about their moral abilities. Also, many people who live on the street are traumatic head injury survivors, and those symptoms mimic those of drug users. We don’t even always know if someone is an addict just by their behavior!”

Mindfulness and Faith

“[We explored] a bit of history on mindfulness, perceptions of the West vs Eastern philosophy and looking at general pros/cons society may believe about mindfulness”

“Nonjudgemental awareness of the present moment appears to be a “means” rather than an “end”: a way of being that promotes holistic engagement with life. Thus, the moral valence of mindfulness may vary with the applied context.”

Psychosis and Spirituality

“Psychosis is defined as a break with reality and is often associated with hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that aren’t there) and/or delusions (fixed beliefs that are false). There are many causes for psychotic disorders including genetic, hormonal, trauma/stress, or infection just to name a few. 3-20% of people experience psychotic symptoms sometime in their lifetime, and 1-4% of people have a psychotic disorder. Common categories for hallucinations/delusions include persecutory, grandiose, erotomaniac, somatic, ideas of reference, control, and paranoid. In some cases, the hallucinations or delusions may have religious content and may include elements of a person’s existing worldview. As examples, a person may say they hear God telling them to kill someone, or they may have a fixed belief that they are the Messiah. It was mainly this tricky subject of religious psychosis that we examined.”

“Our discussion was based around how to understand, assess, and helpfully engage with people suffering from psychosis, in particular religious psychosis. We started by discussing how we know what is real/true in our physical and spiritual world. For many of us, we form our idea of reality based on observation, logic, experience, intuition, scientific evidence, cultural background and family worldview. We then discussed times we felt out of touch with reality. Even without the fixed false beliefs of psychosis, anyone can have periods where they fantasize about romance, success, or rejection. We also discussed how we hear from God. For many of us, we have not heard from God in the form of an audible voice, but rather through Scripture, prayer, a feeling of peace, words of wisdom from those in our community, or even nature.”

“Then we discussed helpful ways to approach the treatment of someone with religious psychosis, especially given that various articles suggest that people with religious delusions are likely to present later and be more resistant to care. In terms of treatment, antipsychotic medication and psychiatric therapy are the traditional methods of treatment. These articles, as well as various case reports, suggest that it is also important to include in the treatment team people who are familiar with the person’s religious background so as to avoid the temptation of lumping all religious beliefs into the category of unhelpful or pathologic. They even suggest that promoting positive religious coping can actually be a helpful aspect of treatment.”

“Our discussion was just the beginning, so I will leave you with a few questions to ponder: Is there ever a spiritual element to the disease process of psychosis? How has Western culture and/or Christianity contributed to our view of psychosis?”

“Integrating biological, psychological and spiritual models of psychosis appears to be extra challenging due to the suffering that specific populations face (e.g., individuals with schizophrenia). Complexifying the matter, it is clear that individuals have a wide range of experiences, which makes sense given that we are addressing perceptual experiences that have been judged to be atypical.”

Cruelty, Regret and Spirituality

“Having stepped out into the realm of history, I am increasingly aware that nonscholarly viewpoints (including my own) regarding the history of religion are highly stereotyped and misleading. Most of us simply lack data when it comes to judging the moral intentions of our predecessors. In this exchange, we are discovering that motives for particular styles of evangelism remain elusive, and moral utilitarian outcomes are not always what one might expect. The challenge to read diverse scholars’ viewpoints on what took place in the past may be all the more relevant to the way we go about exchanging religious ideas in the 21st century.”

Technology, Communication, and Spirituality

“Interpersonal effectiveness increases in complexity through texting, emailing, and social networking. These mediums of communication are effective for light-hearted exchanges or basic tasks. However, communication becomes increasingly convoluted when emotions are heightened. Misunderstandings center around cognitive interpretations of events: there are differential interpretations of factors such as time, syntax, emojis, and wording. Without social cues and emotional reactions, humans move blindly through the dark, frequently misinterpreting motives and meaning.”