Integrating Spirituality and Counseling for African American Clients with Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders, Part 1
This post, the first in a three-part series, shares perspectives from Kisha Freed, a Success Coach, Six Seconds Certified EI Practitioner/Assessor, and mindfulness meditation teacher, and Mark Sanders, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Substance Use Disorders Counselor.
Over the years, counseling has addressed mind and body. There has been some apprehension about the effectiveness of integrating spirituality into counseling practice. However, in Does Spirituality Still Have Relevance For Recovery?, licensed professional counselor James E Campbell mentions that “interest in the spiritual implications of substance use, treatment, and recovery appears to be gaining momentum once again.”
In his article Integrating Spirituality in Counseling Practice, author Gerald Corey indicates “There is growing empirical evidence that our spiritual values and behaviors can promote physical and psychological well-being. Exploring these values with clients can be integrated with other therapeutic tools to enhance the therapy process.”
While continuing research studies are underway to identify the beneficial effects of spirituality in mental health and SUD practices, a 2009 survey conducted by the California Mental Health & Spirituality Initiative revealed that 88% of African Americans agree that their faith is an important factor for their personal and family’s well-being.
In this three-part series, we explore some implications of integrating spirituality and counseling with African American clients with mental illness and substance use disorders. We hope that mental health and addiction recovery counselors will find that integrating spirituality into their practice can help them to increase connection, foster a safe space for belonging, and promote quicker recovery for their clients.
In Part 1, we build a foundation for the overall discussion by defining spirituality, discussing the differences between spirituality and religion, and, lastly, the importance of spirituality for present-day African Americans within the context of past oppression and survival. In parts 2 and 3, we will discuss the integration of spirituality and counseling, how to conduct a spiritual assessment, and varieties of spiritual interventions that can be helpful when counseling African Americans with mental health and SUD.
What is spirituality?
Kisha: For me, spirituality is that search for meaning, such as the meaning of life or connecting to something that's bigger than us. This “something” gives us the will to live and to be motivated to endure the challenges of life. The root word of “spirituality” is “spirit.” There are no words to describe it other than something (or a part of you) that is bigger than you and connects you to a larger purpose. In the moments we feel our connection to spirituality, we can witness the beauty and the meaning of what it means to be here on earth and in this universe.
Mark: When I think of spirituality, the word that comes to my mind the most frequently is connection. An active substance use disorder leads to feeling disconnected. Johann Hari’s research revealed that lost connections contribute to the development of mental illness and substance use disorders (2018). Spirituality leads to feeling connected. This can include connections with other people, connections with nature, and connections with individuals who are also seeking recovery. Along with “connection,” other words that come to mind when I think of spirituality include inspiration, hope, peace, and, as you mentioned, Kisha, meaning and purpose. I liken spirituality to the wind. You can't see the wind most of the time unless it's a tornado or a hurricane, but you know when it's strong. Spirituality is similar to a strong wind. It shows up as energy, joy, vigor, and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm comes from a Greek word that means “the god within.”
Kisha: I really love the words you have chosen. They are intentional and reflective. It brings to light how people can experience, define, and describe spirituality differently. So it's subjective. Interestingly, we both used the word “connection.” You mention connection in terms of connection to people and the environment, whereas connection for me means being a part of something bigger than myself, a purpose. Also, from my personal experience, folks I’ve known to misuse substances said they felt as if they didn’t have a purpose in life or life was meaningless. There is emerging research that indicates life purpose is a preventive factor for substance use disorders.
What are the differences between religion and spirituality?
Mark: Religion is organized. There are certain doctrines that people study and follow as a part of a particular religion. Religions also have rituals. There are so many different religions. There is Christianity, and within Christianity, there are numerous denominations. There is also Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. As we mentioned in our definitions, spirituality is more internal. In our definitions of spirituality, we discussed themes like connectedness, meaning, purpose, and joy. Some people experience spirituality when they go to religious worship, and they feel a sense of peace and joy and connection with others who are worshipping with them. Other people experience spirituality by being in nature, meditating, mindfulness practices, and seeing a waterfall.
Kisha: Spirituality is engendered from within. It is unique and is a personal experience. What I've personally observed about most religions—not all—is that there is a power construct that is centralized around authority, ethics, and morals. Because of this, judgment can be pervasive. Because of the experience of judgment in some of these religions, some folks fail to get in touch with their own personal truth, which is spirituality. Yet, you can practice religion and have spirituality and not practice religion and have spirituality, too.
Much has been written about how spirituality has historically helped Africa Americans deal with oppression, mental health, and substance use disorders. What are your views on this?
Mark: When Africans were brought to America in chattel slavery 400 years ago, they already had concepts of God, spiritual practices, and religions. Their spirituality, belief in God, and religious practices are what sustained them through centuries of oppression, including chattel slavery, the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow Laws, lynchings, and mass incarceration (Gates, 2021). Spirituality can also serve as a mental health and substance use disorder protective factor for African Americans and can be an important component of recovery (Sanders, 2015). It is, therefore, important for clinicians to explore issues around spirituality with African American clients seeking recovery.
Kisha: That’s an interesting question when you talk about spirituality helping African Americans deal with oppression. As you mentioned, our enslaved ancestors arrived here (in the Americas), and they had their spirituality already. According to some research I’ve come across, in the Caribbean, deculturation took place that forbade African language, rituals, and names. Yet in North America, this spirituality was allowed for quite some time because it served as a means of adaptation to a new land, similar climate, and the Africans were more adept at the technology of agriculture than the slaveowners. The transplanting of African spirituality helped preserve the operation of the plantation. However, it wasn’t until later that a Christian conversion project took place, and gradually enslaved Africans adopted this new religion in hopes of a better future.
Spirituality is malleable, agile, living, and breathing. Because the Africans embodied their spirituality, they transferred that meaning and purpose into a new religion. So although, say, a Yoruba god, for instance, may have been substituted with Jesus, the essence of the African spirituality and meaning of life was infused throughout this new religious construct. They integrated their spirituality through song and dance from their culture. Although they let go of the original rituals and other constructs, the new religious construct was a vessel for the original spiritual meaning, giving them the fortitude to endure the difficulty of slavery. Even during the Civil Rights Era, our spirituality, whether Christianity or Islam, was the driving force for protest and change. So, for African Americans, we came here with a deep spirituality, and we adapted and adopted other religions. Spirituality is a part of who we are culturally and is and has been a necessity for survival and well-being. For African Americans, integrating this spirituality into counseling sessions can even help them cope with continuing social stressors such as racism on the job or in the general public.
Mark: What we are talking about is relevant because Twelve Step groups have also demonstrated the ability to integrate spirituality. African Americans have thrived within this spiritual fellowship in African American communities. At meetings you can find Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics all making spiritual connections around their desire to recover.
Kisha: I look forward to our discussion of integrating spirituality and counseling and varieties of spiritual interventions with African Americans with mental illness and substance use disorders.
Campbell, J. E. (2022, November 14). Does Spirituality Still Have Relevance For Recovery? Attcnetwork.org. https://attcnetwork.org/centers/does-spirituality-still-have-relevance-recovery/news/does-spirituality-still-have-relevance
Corey, G. (2006). Integrating Spirituality in Counseling Practice. https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas/by-year2/vistas-2006/docs/default-source/vistas/integrating-spirituality-in-counseling-practice
Hari, J. (2018). Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression-and the unexpected solutions. London: Bloomsbury Circus.
Harvard University (n.d.). African American Christianity. The Pluralism Project Harvard University. Retrieved May 12, 2023, from https://pluralism.org/african-american-christianity
Kim, E. S., Ryff, C., Hassett, A., Brummett, C., Yeh, C., & Strecher, V. (2020). Sense of purpose in life and likelihood of future illicit drug use or prescription medication misuse. Psychosomatic medicine, 82(7), 715.
Sanders, M. (2015). Substance Use Disorders In African American Communities: Prevention, Treatment and Recovery. Routledge.
Sarong, P. (2022, December). Black Americans’ Mental Health and Spirituality. https://www.apadivisions.org/division-36/publications/blog/philip-sarpong
Statewide Survey of Individuals and Families Receiving Mental Health Services Report. (n.d.). https://www.mhspirit.org/surveys
Szwed, J. F., & Abrahams, R. D. (1976). After the Myth: Studying Afro-American Cultural Patterns in the Plantation Literature. Research in African Literatures, 7(2), 211–232. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3818717
Tarver, M. (2016). Why Faith Is Important to African American Mental Health. NAMI Blog. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/February-2016/Why-Faith-Is-Important-to-African-American-Mental.
Related Resources from the ATTC Network
Faith-Based Initiative Web Portal
Great Lakes ATTC