Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Leading Psychologist Sees Faith as an Essential Element in Psychology

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Note: A video recording of this event is available here.

The president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Thema Bryant, told an audience at Duke Chapel on October 3 that faith is an integral part of the practice and research of clinical psychology, while also recognizing that sometimes people are harmed by faith communities.  

“Psychology at its roots is built on faith—not necessarily a religious faith for all people but a belief that more is possible than what we currently embody,” said Dr. Bryant, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, who earned her doctorate in clinical psychology at Duke, as well as her master's and bachelor's degrees.

“When you show up for therapy, there is the idea that I can be more than what I am right now,” she said. “If I am a psychology researcher, it is based in the faith that we can have a greater understanding of humanity…. When we are educators of psychologists, it is also a faith-walk that we are able to see within our students their potential.”

Dr. Bryant’s remarks came in a public conversation with Duke Chapel Dean Luke A. Powery for the Chapel’s 2023 William Preston Few Lecture with more than 300 people in attendance in the Chapel and more than 100 watching live online (see also the views of the recording of the event). The annual lecture series takes its name from Duke’s first president and is funded by an endowment created by the Few family.

“President Few articulated a vision of education promoting the courage to seek the truth and the conviction to live it, which this lecture series seeks to honor,” Dean Powery said in opening the event. “This evening, with the help of Dr. Bryant, we will continue to live into President Few’s vision, to embody Duke Chapel’s value of community, and to contribute to Duke University’s strategic vision of ‘strengthening our campus community.’”

In responding to a question from Dean Powery about objections to integrating faith and psychology, Dr. Bryant said that mental health providers report lower levels of religious belief on average than the general public, which can lead to a dismissive attitude towards the faith of clients when in fact, “It is harmful to erase something [like faith] that gives many people meaning.”

“What we have to do is hold the spectrum,” she said. “The spectrum is: For many people faith is a source of strength, support, identity, and healing, and for many people their faith experience has been connected to degradation, harm, abuse, and condemnation.”  

“In order to do the work, we have to admit both things are true,” she said. “We have to be willing to sit with the fullness of human experience.”

Dr. Bryant is the host of the podcast Homecoming and the author of the book Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole Authentic Self. She is also the director of the mental health ministry at First AME Church in South Los Angeles.

Answering a question about the mental health challenges of young people, she pointed to a number of factors, including a sense of isolation, comparison with peers on social media, a culture of being productive at the expense of deepening relationships, and an emphasis on putting on a good face without allowing for authentic emotions.

“The truth is many of us can feel unseen,” she said. “You can walk across campus and feel invisible…. And so the hunger and longing to be known, accepted, appreciated, valued, even missed if you are not present is something that many people, including young people, are missing.”

Partway through the event, Dr. Bryant demonstrated a centering exercise inviting the audience to place a hand on their hearts and inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. She then repeated the breathing pattern, placing her hand on her stomach and then her forehead.

“’Interoreceptivity’ means bodily awareness,” she said about the exercise. “You are the expert on your own experience.”

Near the end of the conversation, Dean Powery posed a question submitted by an audience member: “What one part of your faith (if you can choose!) do you feel gives you the most strength in your professional practice?”

“For me, it’s resurrection,” Dr. Bryant said. “To believe, as ugly as it is, as horrific as it is, as shame-provoking as it is, as bloody as it is, as gruesome as it is, that my cross does not have the final say on my life—that it is possible to get up even from this.”

Prompted to give a final message, she said, “My final word is, ‘You are worthy.’ You are worthy of care. You are worthy of respect. You are worthy of safety. You are worthy of joy.”

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Following the event, the Rev. Jackie Rodriguez, campus minister for Duke Presbyterian Campus Ministry, said she heard from Dr. Bryant “deep, grounded wisdom.”

“I really, really resonated with coming home to either the heart, the head, or the gut,” Rev. Rodriguez said.

Grace Mcgee, a Duke Divinity School alumna, said that she was struck by Bryant’s remarks about the power of sharing your testimony about what you have overcome in life.

“It gives us all an opportunity to consciously witness to the goodness of God,” she said.

Duke graduate student in global health, Lorenna Garcia-Bochas said, “A lot of times when we are in the sciences, we don’t like to combine faith and science together, but she showed it’s actually possible and it’s important.

“I really enjoyed how it brought this community together from around Duke—people from so many different parts of the university that I interact with but it feels very scattered,” said Justin, a doctoral student in Duke’s clinical psychology program. “The fact that she could come and speak to so many of those experiences at once is something I really appreciated.”

In addition to her appearance at Duke Chapel, during her day on campus, Dr. Bryant interacted with students, staff, faculty, and community members at a luncheon and reception, conversing informally, signing her book, and participating in group photos.

Campus cosponsors of the event were: Counseling and Psychological Services; Department of African & African American Studies; Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Duke Health; Office of Black Church Studies; School of Medicine; Personal Assistance Service; and Theology, Medicine, and Culture.