‘Is social work equipped to address faith and spiritual needs?’

Research suggests service users want services to meet belief-related needs but many professionals are reluctant to engage, writes social worker Chris Short

Picture credit: Design Pic Inc/Rex Features

By Chris Short

As a social worker, I have often wondered how spirituality – a seemingly abstract, subjective, personal belief – could ever be acknowledged and responded to by a profession grounded in the social sciences.

Yet, in a world of diverse belief, religion and spirituality is almost impossible to avoid. One government report on race, religion and equalities found that almost four-fifths (79%) of people said they were affiliated to a religion. While not all of these people will ascribe value to their religion, the reality is that belief may hold significance to a large proportion of people who use services.

So how should services respond? My personal interest in mental health led me to wonder about the influence – both positive and negative – belief could have on someone’s mental health. For example, how as a social worker do you accommodate beliefs that are central to an individual’s psychosis? On the other hand, could services inadvertently promote illness by failing to recognise spiritual needs?

For my final year social work thesis I looked into this area. I was surprised to find that there was very little social work research on this topic. As a result I opted to analyse 10 significant studies from related fields, such as health. My analysis also included several pieces of user-led research, offering unique insight into what service users themselves saw as important.

So what did I find? Three key themes emerged that all pointed to the complexity of this issue.

Firstly, there was no consensus among health professionals and religious professionals on the nature of belief. Secondly, user-led research highlighted the unique nature of belief; how both its value and expression vastly differed even among those perceived by others to hold the same belief. Finally, the relationship between mental health and belief was still somewhat nebulous and misunderstood.

Yet in terms of practice, some clearer issues emerged. Studies suggested an apparent reluctance among professionals to discuss issues of faith, which may have been perceived as deeply personal and private concerns. This problem was not aided by the ways in which both statutory and religious services had related to each other; described as ‘less than professional’ by service users that took part in one study.

The analysis of possibility and challenge really brought the dialogue alive between service user and services. Both expressed valid concern.

Service users acknowledged that they may in fact hold the solution to meeting belief related needs. Services acknowledged that the unique nature of belief presents a problem in finding a realistic approach.

Service users expressed that they want belief related needs to be met and thought this would support them to manage illness more effectively. Professionals felt ill-equipped and unable to do so.

These dilemmas left me feeling that what is perhaps needed is for professionals to be both challenged and better equipped to address spiritual needs.

Service users are keen to express and address what, for them, is not an arbitrary mythology to which they subscribe. Failing to do so is failing to grasp a significant opportunity to engage. One study went as far as to say that it was only when these needs were acknowledged, that ‘breakdowns’ became ‘breakthroughs’.

At the very least, more research into what service users have raised as a significant issue for them, would offer greater insight into the ways in which social workers can respond.

Much has been done to promote awareness of serious concerns facing individuals in relation to gender, ethnicity, and sexuality to achieve justice for people who use services. Yet, as acknowledged by a tutor during my social work training; religion does not appear to receive the same level of attention despite being conferred the same rights significance and protection under UK law.

Chris Short is a social worker in a physical disability team

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