Researcher examines religion and patient-therapist relationships


Stephanie Winkeljohn Black, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, is seeking to bridge the gap between how mental health counselors manage religious beliefs and the type of understanding and care that their clients need.

Credit: Penn State Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Stephanie Winkeljohn Black, assistant professor of psychology in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, sees a gap between how mental health counselors manage religious beliefs and the type of understanding and care that their clients need. She has made closing that gap a mission.

A counseling psychologist, Winkeljohn Black said that she is trying to better understand how psychotherapy trainees and those already practicing approach issues of religion and spirituality, and then track how this impacts their clients. What happens in therapy sessions and then, most important, how does this affect the outcome of treatment? How does this affect the connection between therapists and clients?

“We know that connection is one of the biggest predictors of the outcome of therapy. If you don’t feel a connection, we have a problem,” she said. “Ultimately, my goal is to develop training interventions that will improve therapists’ work with clients of differing faiths.”

Winkeljohn Black observed that the faith traditions of clients wasn’t regularly being acknowledged in sessions. She also found other gaps. “We don’t know the current state of what trainees think or what they do with clients of different religious backgrounds,” she said. Another major challenge is finding information on diversity in religious identities and racial identities in clients and in trainees. Groups such as “atheists and Muslims have been significantly underrepresented in research, as have most groups who aren’t white and Christian,” she said.

As a result, related training for practitioners has been limited.

“Currently, there aren’t really any training or regimented programs for folks to understand how to work with clients of different religions or spiritual identities in the same way that we have more regimented training requirements around people of different race or ethnic groups, or genders, or class status,” Winkeljohn Black said. “But we know that religion and spirituality intersects with all of those things.”

Her ongoing research has her working with future therapists from several local universities, training them to work with clients of different backgrounds. She looks at the religious/prayer experience for people in general and is using that to determine how “to effectively train professionals to understand these experiences.”

Winkeljohn Black is conducting “implicit-association” tests with her students. These tests measure the strength of someone’s association between a concept or idea (e.g. a specific race or religion) and an evaluation of it, such as good or bad, positive or negative. Her tests examined successful and unsuccessful therapy clients and different religious stimuli to measure the associations. The students then debriefed about the experience in a focus group, which Winkeljohn Black said is the most important component of her study.

“Everyone has implicit bias,” she said. “My curiosity is not so much how much implicit bias they have, but how do they deal with it and move forward.” 

She also offers a free training program on religious and spiritual diversity in the context of therapy to any student interested.

Winkeljohn Black’s interests are based in her own background in social justice. She said that she noticed that in working with clients with intersecting identities, many would discuss their ethnic identity, their sexual orientation, and ultimately their faith tradition and its effect on how they viewed the world. She realized that there wasn’t a lot to guide that process.

“To be a well-rounded social justice advocate, you have to account for all of those intersecting identities, and with religion that gets really tricky because religious institutions historically and currently protect and oppress people. That is an interesting thing to tackle in a therapeutic relationship, but when you do, it allows you to validate the client, give them what they need, and be an advocate.”