April 4, 2017

Finding a Therapist in the Bible Belt

counselingThere is no question that finding a mental health professional who will not attempt to infuse treatment with Christianity can be more challenging for atheists living in the Bible Belt than it is likely to be in less religious regions of the U.S. Fortunately, it is often possible to find a good counselor or therapist who will not do this. And if you really need help, I'd encourage you not to give up on finding such a provider.

Many mental health professionals are trained to ask potential clients about their religious beliefs during the initial interview or early in the therapeutic relationship. The reason for this typically has little to do with proselytizing or judging you; it is about assessing how you copes with the stresses and strains of life. As you know, most people in the Bible Belt are religious and/or spiritual. It makes sense that the professional is going to ask about this as an effort to understand you. It is relevant for most people, so you should not be surprised or put off by it. I am an atheist, and I asked people about it when I was practicing.

How should you respond when you are asked about your religious or spiritual beliefs? You should feel perfectly free to describe yourself as an atheist and to indicate that religion and/or spirituality is not part of your life. The questions about these topics should stop at that point. If they don't, you should repeat yourself and ask something like, "I am not interested in any sort of religious or spiritual being a part of my treatment. Is that going to be an issue for you?" If this isn't the end of it, I recommend you try another counselor or therapist.

As someone who has been on both sides of many therapeutic interactions (i.e., as a therapist and as a client), I can tell you that I would not hesitate to seek counseling or therapy from a practitioner who was religious. I have had mostly positive experiences with therapists who were Christian (I am talking about therapists who happened to be Christian in their personal lives and not those who advertised themselves as "Christian counselors" or providing "Christian counseling"). They kept their personal religious beliefs out of our relationship and respected my wishes not to introduce religious and/or spiritual concepts into the process. Had they been unwilling to do so, I would have looked elsewhere.

The primary thing I wish to impress upon you is that it is okay for you to "shop around" until you find a counselor or therapist with whom you are comfortable. If you cannot relax and be comfortable with someone, it is difficult to imagine that the experience is going to be worthwhile. Good counselors and therapists know this, and you should not worry about offending someone who decides to take it personally. It can take awhile to find someone with whom you can work effectively. Do not let that deter you. We're talking about your time, your money, and your mental health.

There has been at least one attempt I'm aware of to develop a directory of secular therapists. This is not a bad idea, but I think it is important to recognize one major limitation with such efforts. It is risky for a counselor or therapist to publicly identify as secular in the Bible Belt because most of his or her clientele is likely to be Christian. There are not many places in the Bible Belt where I'd want to try practicing as an openly secular therapist because I wouldn't anticipate that there would be enough clients seeking secular therapists to make a go of it. And as I suggested above, I think it would be a mistake for most atheists to restrict themselves to secular mental health providers. Atheist providers can be terrible, and Christian providers can be wonderful; the key is to find a competent professional with whom you feel comfortable and who will respect your wishes regarding the role religion/spirituality has in your care.

Here are a couple of previous posts I have written on this topic:
I suspect there will be more in the future, as it pains me to think that there are atheists in need of mental health services who are reluctant to seek them because they do not have easy access to competent treatment providers.
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