Professor awarded funding to help therapists gain spiritual competencies

Stephanie Winkeljohn Black
Credit: Sharon Siegfried

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Penn State Harrisburg professor Stephanie Winkeljohn Black has joined a new initiative to help therapists-in-training develop religious and spiritual competencies with their clients.

Winkeljohn Black, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, has been awarded $110,000 as a sub-award from Stetson University, which received funding from the Templeton Foundation. Her work will focus on developing and testing an online program aimed at increasing therapists’ religious and spiritual competencies with clients, addressing a current gap in training.

“Most people in the United States still believe in some sort of higher power or use religion and spirituality as a framework to make meaning in their lives,” Winkeljohn Black said, adding that people may want to talk about that as part of their therapy.

At least half of psychologists do not ascribe to any faith tradition, or they identify as atheist or agnostic, she added. 

Her project seeks to address a disparity between the many clients interested in talking about their religious or spiritual beliefs and the lack of training available to ensure therapists are well prepared for those conversations.

“Many psychologists are interested in bringing that into the room, but will say, ‘I just don’t know how,’” Winkeljohn Black said.

Only about 25% of secular training programs formally incorporate how to work with religious and spiritual clients, she said.

Through the Templeton Foundation funding, she and other researchers around the country are looking for creative ways to approach the problem.

Winkeljohn Black will develop an online program that will allow therapist trainees to respond in real time to video clips of fictitious clients, portrayed by actors. The research team will be able to watch and provide immediate feedback to the trainee. Six training sites around the country have agreed to participate.

Winkeljohn Black has gathered a team of consultants including, for example, an expert in Muslim American psychology who is a person of faith, and a Christian chaplain, who will help review the video clips to ensure they are realistic. After the program is implemented, she will track how the trainees’ attitudes change and look at outcomes for the trainees’ clients.

The goal is to find methods that could be implemented nationwide.

It would be impossible for someone to have a deep knowledge of every cultural group or faith tradition, Winkeljohn Black said. She is more focused on the idea of cultural humility — if a therapist can sit with someone and explore the topic and be open to feedback.

“I hope long term…we can get to a space where therapists are just more comfortable even thinking about engaging this idea, because I think that will make our clients more comfortable. When clients feel comfortable and heard, they have better mental health outcomes,” she said.