Thursday, December 17, 2020 - 12:00
American Counseling Association’s Conference and Expo will take place virtually in 2021
by Keith Fernbach
A group of faculty and students in Rider University’s counseling programs have collaborated on a poster presentation proposal about how an individual’s spiritual beliefs can impact their likelihood to engage in injurious behaviors such as cutting or burning.
They were originally slated to present their work in a poster session titled “Spiritual Abandonment and Non-suicidal Self-Injury: Research and Client Care” at the American Counseling Association’s 2020 Conference and Expo, which was scheduled for April 2020 in San Diego, Calif. The event was canceled because of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, and they will instead be presenting virtually at the 2021 conference, which will take place in April.
The group includes Juleen Buser, a Rider professor and the director of school counseling and coaching programs; Terry Pertuit, an associate professor in Rider’s counseling program; Trevor Buser, an associate professor at Naropa University and a former Rider professor; and Sravya Gummaluri '16, '19, a recent graduate of Rider’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. Rachel Perry '18, '20, a recent graduate of Rider’s Master of Arts in Counseling Services program, was a part of the presentation proposal but will be unable to participate in the conference presentation.
Juleen Buser, the lead presenter, has done extensive research on the connection between spiritual beliefs and mental health, and has found that spirituality can’t be categorized as being “good” or “bad” for an individual’s mental health. Rather, it’s the nature of the specific beliefs that can determine what effect a person’s faith will have.
For example, she says individuals who feel supported by God or a higher power during a stressful time have reduced levels of disordered eating and cutting behaviors. On the other hand, those who feels that they have been abandoned or are being punished by God or a higher power are more likely to have a negative outcome.
Buser further explains that the feeling of being abandoned by God or a higher power can be more detrimental than the feeling of being punished. “Initially, it might seem to be more of problem to believe that you are being punished, but a sense that you’ve been abandoned or forgotten is actually more psychologically damaging,” she says. There are various theories about why this feeling of being spiritually abandoned is so harmful, such as a sense of powerlessness, self-blame, and/or loss of control.
One of the takeaways of the research is to suggest that counselors should consider assessing for spiritual beliefs when working with clients who struggle with non-suicidal self-injury, and in particular, ascertain whether clients with spiritual and/or religious beliefs feel deserted by God or higher power.
“It is very important to look specifically at what a client believes. Some faith beliefs may be beneficial to a client’s mental health and other beliefs may be somewhat problematic. As a counselor, it is vital to be aware of this and understand how to clinically address client faith beliefs that may be linked with negative health outcomes,” says Buser. As such, counselors should be comfortable with different ways to approach faith beliefs and what prevention and intervention strategies may be useful in these cases.
The three professors, who have previously collaborated on other academic pursuits, recently co-wrote an article on the topic of spiritual abandonment and non-suicidal self-injury that will be published in an upcoming issue of the Counseling and Values Journal. They asked Gummaluri and Perry to partner with them on the presentation because both students had expressed a desire to participate in scholarly professional activities, and had an interest in the subject matter.
Juleen Buser says that in her role as a faculty member at Rider, she makes a conscious effort to publish and present with her students. “I value this work for the opportunity to serve as a mentor for students and train them in the research process,” she says.
She adds that these collaborations benefit her as much as they do her students. “They bring such an excellent perspective to the scholarly work. For example, I have worked on qualitative research projects with students and have found their contributions to the interviewing, coding and theme identification process to be extremely helpful and illuminating.”