Whether or not it’s the legacy of Sigmund Freud, the religiously skeptical founder of psychoanalysis, there’s often a disparity in the counseling room.
Psychiatrists are less likely to claim a religious affiliation or to practice religion than other doctors, or the general public from whom their clients come, according to research.
An upcoming conference, “When God Talks Back: Psychotherapy and the Faithful,” aims to bridge that gap by helping mental-health professionals understand their clients’ spiritual experiences.
Keynote speaker T.M. Luhrmann, a psychiatric anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University, will speak at the April 28 conference at the Frick Fine Arts Building Auditorium at the University of Pittsburgh.
Ms. Luhrmann will discuss her research into how evangelical Christians perceive their relationship with God — and how in many ways their religious experience provides the same reinforcement that psychotherapy does.
“You can make the argument that psychoanalysis is a secular attempt to deal with some of the existential issues that earlier were managed within religion,” said Ms. Luhrmann, who has a doctorate from Cambridge University.
“We know that going to church is good for you, and increasingly we know there are health benefits associated with prayer,” she said. Part of that, she said, may be that religious people simply are more likely to have social support through their congregations and avoid destructive behaviors.
“But the evidence is also emerging that there’s something about the quality of maintaining a relationship with the God who loves you and the transformative benefits of seeking an experiencing of God that have a positive impact on your emotional well-being and possibly physically,” she said.
Often in prayer, she said, evangelical believers give thanks for their blessings, confess sins and resolve to mend their ways, and emerge feeling reinforced in their belief in a God they perceive as “loving and merciful rather than judgmental.”
She said that experience is similar to what happens in cognitive behavioral therapy — in which a patient is guided into “shifting attention from what’s going wrong to what’s going right,” and finding the strength and imagination to see themselves pulling out of destructive patterns.
“It reorganizes the way you think,” she said.
Ms. Luhrmann’s 2012 book, “When God Talks Back,” has won widespread recognition, being named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winning the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.
An organizer of the conference, Jon Spiegel, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, said Ms. Luhrmann’s talk will be important to “understand what the evangelicals are up to in a psychologically sophisticated way so that the health-care professionals can do a better job with their patients.”
Sponsors include the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Community Care Behavioral Health Organization.