How psychology plays an integral role in Chaplaincy

role of psychology in chaplaincy

Mental health and spiritual needs are incredibly intertwined, and often inseverable. Many who seek spiritual guidance from a chaplain are also suffering from various mental health challenges such as trauma, grief, or a sudden life change that might trigger other mental health issues.

Chaplaincy and Mental Health

According to the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, early research on this issue found that many people in need first seek help from “clergy, pastoral counselors, and chaplains rather than from mental health professionals.” And on the other side of this same coin, NACC writes, “Professional chaplains can be an important ally in providing religious and spiritual interventions for mental health patients.”  Research has shown that many mental health patients benefit from religious and spiritual interventions. 

In a 2017 study, researchers looked into collaborative models between chaplains and mental health professionals in US Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense settings. The study found that growing awareness between the two professions – chaplains and mental health providers – led to more promising outcomes, and a better understanding of the patients’ overall needs.  

Additionally, many people of faith are reluctant to seek mental health treatment because of the stigma attached to it or their fear that some might not fully understand their religion or culture. For example, in the United States, many Muslims are reluctant to seek out mental health professionals because they fear that a Western-trained therapist will not understand their culture or religion.

Important Role of Psychology

It is crucial then that chaplains working in a number of settings understand the important role that psychology plays in the chaplaincy profession, in order to best serve the people they are working with, and to better understand when collaboration with other professionals might lead to a more positive outcome. Further, a foundational education in the interconnectedness of the whole person – both their spiritual health and mental health needs – can help chaplains and religious leaders know when to refer someone to a mental health professional. 

Hartford International University for Religion & Peace  offers an MA in Chaplaincy (MAC) program designed to train the next generation of religious leaders, who view chaplaincy as the professional practice of care for all people in diverse settings. The program teaches a theological education that integrates psychology and sociology to foster empathetic religious leadership. Courses include the required Sociology and Psychology for Chaplains (CH-510), which explores how religion is present and influential in public and private life, creating a dialogue between the theoretical and the practical. Additionally, Psychology of Trauma (AM-731) explores both ‘spiritual’ manifestations of trauma and the physiological impact of trauma on the brain. Students learn that being able to recognize trauma and understand the various approaches to handling trauma is a common part of a chaplain’s work.