• Sarah Royle is surprised to find that religion is left out of client assessment tools

  • She argues that therapists must be aware of belief systems

  • If you are looking for a therapist, you can find one here

If you lived in England a hundred years ago and described yourself as having beliefs, it would be almost certain that you went to church on Sundays, read the Bible, and said your prayers at night.

Britain has changed a lot in the last hundred years. A chaplaincy in a university or hospital, once populated by a Catholic priest and an Anglican vicar, is today a multicultural hub with representatives from all the major religions. People's religious and spiritual well-being has never been so well catered for - in certain places. In others, unfortunately understanding remains lacking, and tolerance is shaky at best.

I was surprised to find that psychotherapists didn't ask their clients about their religious and spiritual affiliations and beliefs.

Psychotherapists have a reputation for being open-minded, inclusive, ethical and knowledgeable about diversity. It is our job, after all, to try to understand people's thoughts and perceptions, and to work with them to address any issues they may be experiencing in their lives. A large part of this is to be aware of people's backgrounds, cultures and social circumstances; to not be afraid to question, to challenge and to help the client to gain self-understanding and resolution of the issues they brought to therapy.

When I did my masters research I was surprised, therefore, to find that religious and spiritual affiliations and beliefs did not feature on any published client assessment tool. Other practitioners I spoke to confirmed that it was not something they had ever asked their clients, unless the client raised it themselves. Of course, spiritual counselling exists, as does counselling within religious organisations, and both are very helpful to the clients that choose to undertake therapy within such a setting. However, this was not what interested me. I was interested in why beliefs, which can be hugely influential in people's lives, were not seen as important enough to warrant any interest in the assessment of and subsequent work with a client.

If therapists don't have an awareness of - and an ability to work with - belief systems, there are limitations to what can be achieved.

I had originally intended to use my thesis to explore how a person's religious and spiritual beliefs are addressed within therapy, but my scope ended up being much wider. Our beliefs shape who we are - how we feel; how we think; how we behave. But these beliefs are not limited to religion. A strong left-wing political standpoint may impact on how a client deals with the loss of a job. Someone with feminist views may not believe that a male therapist is capable of helping her. A client who tries to base their life on kindness and compassion may be helping others to the point where it is detrimental to their own health.

All these hypothetical clients have issues that arise from conflict with their belief systems. If a therapist does not have an awareness of - and an ability to work with - such systems, there will be limitations to what can be achieved. Western society is making great strides in embracing cultural diversity, and in recognising and accepting the beliefs of different groups of people. Psychotherapy may be lagging behind slightly, but I believe it has the potential to be a powerful tool in recognising and validating the beliefs of individuals, and in doing so, helping clients to experience a positive therapeutic process, and ultimately achieve their goals.

Further reading

Therapy and the art of transformation

Could Thinking about death improve your life?

Trying different types of therapy

The benefits of working with dreams in therapy