Very few programs meet our standards on this issue and we see no
excuse. Finding programs that do will be difficult. We realize it is
difficult to support spiritual growth in clients when there is so much
difference and controversy over religious doctrines. However, we think there
are ways to get the job done. The genuine difficulties do not justify an
anti-religion bias. Avoidance of the the issue gets communicated
to students/clients as an anti-religion bias that we believe is
unacceptable. We also have
programs with labels associated with various religions that are simply
trying to market an inferior program by claiming a religious lable.
Hill School in Pottstown, PA (a conventional boarding
school, not a therapeutic program) is not church affiliated.
However every week the students meet in an auditorium, where the
program includes one faculty member, a different one each week,
standing up and sharing his/her own personal spiritual journey.
Family Foundation School near Hancock, NY requires
(or recently did requre) all
students to participate in religious observances of all faiths
represented. They also put great emphasis on religious
- Many programs promote spirituality as offered in twelve step
groups, with the concept of “higher power.”
- Many programs rely on a Native American observance of
spirituality, as it is understood that there is no effort to
make this anyone’s religion, but to have a sense of the how it
feels to be spiritual. One problem is that this approach
assumes that there will not be students clients from a
background of the Native American religion used in this way,
possible an assumption demeaning to the Native Americans who
practice that religion. Schools and programs doing this
need to do it respectfully and accurately, then consider whether
or not they are seriously promoting a religion that may differ
from the religion of the students / residents.
These are all sincere
attempts to support a recognition of the importance of spiritual health.
We'd like these efforts to go farther in some cases, but these examples
make clear that there is a way to do this.
- A number of
programs with privileges tied to a "levels" system make
participation in religious activities including attendance at
public worship a privilege of advancement in the levels system.
- Many programs (not all) that describe themselves as
“Christian,” are providing inferior services that hide behind the term
“Christian” as vehicle to make money and avoid accountability. Some are
truly dedicated ministries. Many are money making scams.
- Very few
programs support religious milestones such as Bar Mitzvah, and
- Very few
programs offer special diet according to religion or permit
observance of special days.
- Some schools
and programs with a church affiliation are the worst offenders
by reason of how they dilute the spiritual content of what they
do and give a message that seems like an apology for their faith
Spiritual development and religion are two different things, although
related. The late H. Stephen Glenn
described the foundation of spirituality as perceiving oneself as being
a contributing part of something larger than self.
Much of what we are
writing targets secular programs, but we welcome faith based programs
into the mix. We do expect that faith based programs will be
transparent about what faith the program is based on. We expect that
they will invite and encourage participation in religious and faith
based activities, they will respect the line that separates
encouragement and nurture of faith from religious abuse. We want
faith based programs to be transparent on how they approach a
student/client of a different faith if enrolled: do they expect
participation in activities of their own faith or encourage
participation in activities of the faith of the student's or client's
family? Either may be acceptable. We are raising the issue of
welcome well run faith based sectarian schools and
programs whether they serve only populations of the same faith or serve
those of a different faith. However, when encouraging young people
of a different faith to participate in the faith of the program, this
must have truly informed consent of the parents and be handled in a
manner that is not emotionally stressful for the young person.
There can be a very fine line between evangelism and religious abuse. While we know valid
accounts of young people experiencing a religious conversion during a
stay in a faith based treatment center having a very positive effect on
the young person's life, we know more stories of coercive
techniques in religious therapeutic or behavior change settings that
have been a new source of trauma and that we would consider to be
religious abuse. We have no problem with faith based facilities
inviting students to participate in religious activities of the faith
sponsoring the facility, but we consider most examples of forced participation to be
As a starting point for guidelines
- Programs need to recognize that spiritual health is an
important part of mental health. Programs need to explain
clearly how they incorporate spiritual health into their
program. This is apart from any specific religious observance.
- Programs should
provide means for clients to adhere to expectations of their
religion, especially with respect to diet and observance of
- Programs should not condone a peer pressure
to resist religious activities.
participation in religious activities and celebrations to levels
systems is, in our opinion, while a common practice, is a
totally unacceptable interference in a family's right to choose
their religious practice. (This does not mean to imply that we
object to tying attendance at community religious services to
reasonable confidence in the client's ability to participate in
religious activities safely and non-disruptively but it is not
appropriate to make religious participation an equivalent of
and off campus recreation event when setting privileges.)
Again, spiritual health is necessary to mental health.
- Programs need to validate and encourage clients to follow
the milestones and faith commitments of the religion of their
home. Religious neutrality should not support obstruction to
religious observance or a peer pressure that obstructs religious
- Sectarian and
faith based programs should be free to follow their own
doctrines, including doctrines at which some would take offense,
but need to be very clear with students and parents prior to
enrollment about practices that derive from religious doctrines
that some would find uncomfortable.
- Sectarian and
faith based programs should not use the time of behavioral or
mental health crisis to attempt to force a religious conversion.
A sectarian program can be very helpful in using a client’s
existing religion as a support for recovery in many cases.
But a student/client is in a program for mental health reasons
or for behavioral changes or for emotional growth.
Religion and faith can be useful tools in some situations but
they should not become distractions or points of emotional
- Schools and
programs with a religious affiliation need to be very clear
about what doctrines they espouse and what they expect of their
students / clients. We are particularly concerned with
"Christian" programs being reticent about greater specificity,
especially when they say they are "simply Christian." We
believe that to be disingenuous unless they are prepared to
support the Christian perspective of all of a very diverse group
of people, such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Bishop John Shelby
Spong, Pope Benedict XVI, James Dobson, Bishop Eugene
Robinson, (LDS) President Thomas S. Monson, and the late Pope John XXIII, for example. If they are
not at least that eclectic within the diversity of Christendom,
then some further clarification is necessary. We are not stating
that every Christian program needs to endorse the views and
practices of all of those individuals; we are saying if they
cannot, they need to provide a more specific definition of their
religious commitment than simply to describe themselves as
- We encourage
invitation to religious participation; we abhor abusively forcing
Last updated April 14, 2009