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Mental Illness

Religion in Peer Support Work

Always branching into new topics, I intend to share things I’ve learned about how to use my story to help others. Religion is particularly difficult to manage in peer support work, but it can be done, and I think it’s better done carefully than not done at all. It’s worth the risk.

Talking with my therapist recently, we talked about religion and its role in my life. I talked about the tools it gives me, such as prayer, meditation and incense, as well as a church family and a spiritual father who guides me and supports me. So in my mind, it was a collection of tools. But the fact is, for me personally, that doesn’t do justice to the role of Religion is my life. I will never preach my religion as part of my job and that includes on this blog, but I have to mention that to me, my religion is at my very core. Even my name, Damhan, is a name I took because of religious devotion. It’s known as a “Saint’s Name” in my church and there’s a lot of meaning behind it. All this to say that to ignore religion in guiding me or helping me in my recovery journey would be to miss probably the biggest aspect of who I am, and would render such services essentially useless.

Using a common religion

So how does a peer support best use religion in a supportive way with a client? I find the best way is to simply be validating to whatever the client says, whether or not I agree, but also to share my enthusiasm where our views align. For example, let us say that I am working with a Protestant Christian. I am a Christian, but I am not Protestant. If my client talks to me about their disgust with other forms of Christianity, such as Orthodoxy, which is my denomination, then I will listen and understand and support them as a person dealing with that. I don’t have to say I agree, to be supportive or even validating. On the other hand, if they talk about God’s love and support for His followers, then I do actually agree with them, and I might share my personal enthusiasm about that concept, and how I’ve used it in my life to move forward in Recovery. Remember, the best skill we peers have is our story, so where the stories align, we use it as much as we can. I will talk to a peer about my feeling of safety with God’s love all day long, both listening and occasionally speaking. This builds on the community that we might have as Christians and brings me closer to my client. This bond gives my story more weight and therefore more usefulness to them as they engage with it in their own journey.

When you’re a different religion

OK, but not everyone is some branch of Christian. What if my client is a different religion entirely, such as Islam or Judaism, or even something non-Abrahamic like Hindu? With Abrahamic religions, we have a common root to our beliefs, Abraham. I can build on that commonality and validate their views and still share my story where it aligns. It takes a lot of care to balance this, but if you have the intuition to do it successfully, I think it’s a very powerful tool. For non-Abrahamic religions, I must admit that I don’t know as much, but even that is an opportunity to have my peer educate me. I can participate with them in that way and validate them and learn how to be useful to them in their experiences

For the non-religious

What if they have no religion at all? Atheism is very much growing these days, and honestly, one of the many reasons for that is that people have been badly hurt by others who are religious. Religion is a very deep part of most of our psyches and it can either do a lot of good, or a lot of harm. Some people have been really hurt. Others might feel uncomfortable around religion in general. I know some Atheists who generally don’t tell anyone about their unbelief because they are likely to get a negative response to it.

My approach to this is to wait for someone to bring religion up on their own, and spend time validating their experiences and their person. I take time to listen for a while before using the religious aspects of my story to help others. Sometimes what people bring up is their anger toward religion and the pain they suffered from it. To be honest, part of my story is being hurt by the Church. Obviously, that didn’t drive me away from the Church, but I understand that pain, and I can use my empathy. Again, I take great care not to speak too much and certainly not to advance into areas my client has avoided.

Religion used wrongly

I once worked with someone who tried to use religion to help a client but probably did more harm than good. Our poor client was going through an unimaginable trauma. The trauma was ongoing, and so she believed that God hated her. My coworker didn’t believe for a second that God hated our client and decided to argue that point. As you can see, now my coworker is in an argument with the very person she’s trying to validate! It definitely backfired.

Personally, my religious views on the topic are the same as were my coworker at the time. To this day, I don’t believe for a second that God hates or hated our client. But my religious views aren’t important to the person I’m serving. What’s important is that this client felt hated by God, and I felt that my role was to validate her hardship and that she was struggling with that. I most certainly didn’t say that God hates her. Speaking contrary to my opinion is not needed for validation. I just listened to my client and honestly, what she needed was to have someone suffer with her.

The whole picture

Basically what I’m getting at is this: Balance, balance, balance. I think it would be foolish to ignore something so core to a person as their religion if you’re trying to help them through, but we need to keep it about their story and validating them. We only use our story where it is applicable to the person we’re serving. I’ve written this from the perspective of a professional Peer Support Specialist, but do know, Gentle Readers, that it applies to anyone supporting another. Let us not waste any opportunity to support another in improving their life!

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