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USU project trains future social workers on religion and spirituality

A wall with symbols for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity on it.
Noah Holm

Those pursuing advanced degrees in mental health-related fields must consider many varying aspects about their clients — what social work calls a “bio-psycho-social-spiritual lens.” Twenty $40,000 grants given across the U.S. are hoping to improve training on one aspect specifically: religion and spirituality.

One of the sites chosen was the Master of Social Work program at USU. Brian Droubay, recipient of the grant and an assistant professor in the program, said religion and spirituality are often the elephant in the room when it comes to gaining competencies.

"Graduate mental health training programs can be very secular, and we talk a lot about multiculturalism,” Droubay said. “We don’t talk a lot about religion and spirituality, even though I think that’s sort of a central facet of multiculturalism.”

Droubay believes this could partly be a bias in those fields favoring people who are religiously identified, and says that religion is such a sensitive topic that practitioners simply don’t bring it up. However, he says this is the opposite of what some clients want.

“There’s past research literature suggesting that clients, oftentimes they want to incorporate their spiritual views into psychotherapy,” Droubay said. “And they want the practitioner to be the one that brings it up first.”

Droubay says clients have better treatment outcomes when practitioners are sensitive to their value system and worldviews. This is especially important, he says, in a place like Utah where religion is a dominant part of the culture.

“If you’re a practitioner working in Utah, that is going to come up,” Droubay said. “There’s no practitioner that’s working clinically that’s not going to have a religious or spiritual issue that comes up in practice in some way, shape or form.”

With this project, Droubay hopes religious and spiritual competency will be implemented more, not just in his own department but across the country. He says he’s never seen a project on this scale to undertake this goal, which gives him more hope that it will catch on.

The grant is going partly towards the curriculum Droubay has been disseminating to his students over the last semester, which involves concrete knowledge, discussions and roleplays, and introspective work about students’ own biases and spiritual journeys.

Droubay says the curriculum also acknowledges the wide range of religious affiliations or lack thereof, as well as how religion can at times be harmful. He says it all comes down to knowing how to discuss these things sensitively, and incorporate every factor into assessments and treatment.

Droubay said he’s already seen growth in his students’ competency as well as their confidence both in and out of the classroom throughout the last semester.

“They frequently brought up in the classroom, ‘I can ask these questions to my clients now. I feel like I can ask difficult questions. I feel like we can navigate these things, almost like I have permission to do this,’” Droubay said.

At the end of the semester, students did a final case study to gauge their increased knowledge. They’re also participating in a national research study to evaluate whether the curriculum is helping them gain the desired competencies. With that information, the curriculum will be evaluated, adjusted and made widely available by the creators of the training program after the grant is completed in December.

Droubay is also using some of the funds for additional research into the subject and hopes to bring in a guest speaker later this year.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.