Saturday, August 22, 2020

Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Interview with Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D.

[Episode 128] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is a conversation with Dr. Holly Oxhandler ( 

I speak with Holly about the definitions of religion and spirituality,  similarities and differences in religious and spiritual affiliation between social work professionals and their clients, how to address religion and spirituality in practice, and her experience as the co-host of the CXMH podcast (  

Download MP3 [45:05]


Holly K. Oxhandler joined Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work in 2014 upon completing her PhD at the University of Houston. She studies the intersection of ethical and effective integration of clients’ religion/spirituality (RS) with the evidence-based practice process in mental and behavioral health treatment. She developed the Religious/Spiritually Integrated Practice Assessment Scale (RSIPAS), which assesses mental healthcare providers’ (social workers, psychologists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, and nurses) attitudes, perceived feasibility, self-efficacy, behaviors, and overall orientation toward integrating clients’ RS in practice. She has also developed other instruments related to this area of practice, including the RSIPAS-Client Attitudes, the Social Workers’ Integration of their Faith – Christian (SWIF-C) Scale, and most recently, the Relevance of Religion/Spirituality to Mental Health to measure clients’ perceived relevance of religion/spirituality and mental health. 

Dr. Oxhandler cohosts the weekly podcast, CXMH: Christianity & Mental Health, has clinical and research experience working with older adults with anxiety and depression at Baylor College of Medicine, and often consults with other helping professions on the ethical integration of clients’ religion/spirituality. Though the integration of clients’ RS in mental health treatment is her primary area of interest, her scholarship also includes evidence-based practice, serious mental illness, anxiety disorders, virtual reality, mentoring, and social work practitioners’ professional identity. Dr. Oxhandler teaches across the BSW, MSW, and PhD programs in courses primarily related to research and statistics.

Dr. Oxhandler’s research and training have been generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Baylor University and others. She is grateful for these sources of support but is especially thankful for the invaluable mentoring she has received over the years. Because of her exceptional mentors, Dr. Oxhandler deeply enjoys paying it forward by mentoring students outside the classroom with regard to professional development and supporting faculty in her role as associate dean for Research and Faculty Development.



Jonathan Singer: In today’s episode of the social work podcast, I talk with Dr. Holly Oxhandler about religion and spirituality in social work practice. Long-time listeners of the podcast will know that I’ve done several episodes about religion and spirituality, starting with Episode #2, back in January 2007, talked about the role of spirituality in the biopsychosocial spiritual assessment. 2010 was a banner year for religion and spirituality on the podcast. I first spoke with Nancy Boyd-Franklin in episode 59 about incorporating religion and spirituality into social work practice with African Americans. Later that year I spoke with author Eileen Flanagan in Episode 61 about the Serenity prayer. Yes, I did an entire episode about the serenity prayer. It was fascinating. In 2012 and 2014 I had episodes about religious child maltreatment, which encompasses religiously motivated physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and medical neglect. And along the way, many of my guests have talked about the role of religion and spirituality in various facets of social work practice. 

So, why another episode? Well, social work has an uncomfortable relationship with religion and spirituality. We’re required to assess for religion and spirituality, but most social workers have no training in what to do when people say that religion and spirituality is important. As Holly mentions in this interview, social workers as a profession are much less religious and much more spiritual than the general population. And when social workers are religious, their affiliations are very different from the general population. So, even though social workers don’t have to share a faith tradition with their clients, or have any faith tradition at all, I still have questions about the role of religion and spirituality in social work. So I turned to my friend and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and an Associate Professor in Baylor's Diana Garland School of Social Work, Dr. Holly Oxhandler. 

Dr. Oxhandler’s research focuses on the ethical and effective integration of clients’ religion, spirituality in mental and behavioral health treatment, and she's received funding from the John Templeton Foundation and Spencer Foundation. She developed the Religious Spirituality Integrated Practice Assessment Scale for mental health care providers and a number of other scales to better understand clients’ and social work educators’ views or experiences with this topic. Dr. Oxhandler also serves as the cohost of the CXMH, a podcast at the intersection of faith and mental health. You can find Dr. Oxhandler on social media @hollyoxhandler ( and the CXMH podcast at

Before we get to the interview, let’s get some definitions out of the way, and these come from Holly via Ed Canda’s work: 

Religion is an institutionalized pattern of values, beliefs, symbols, behaviors, and experiences that are oriented toward spiritual concerns that are shared by a community and transmitted overtime in traditions. For example, every Friday night my family and I say prayers as we light candles, drink the fruit of the vine and eat bread. This shabbat tradition is shared by the community of Jews all over the world. By participating in this weekly tradition, we are passing along the symbols, behaviors and experiences to our children.  

Spirituality, on the other hand, has some overlaps but is distinct in and of itself. Spirituality is said to be a universal and fundamental human quality involving the search for a sense of meaning, purpose, morality, well-being and profundity in relationships with ourselves, others, and ultimate reality, however that might be understood. And spirituality can be expressed in various religious forms, or it can be separate from them. 

Until he died, we celebrated shabbat with my wife’s grandfather every Friday night. My wife would call him, first over Skype and then with Facetime. In the beginning, shabbat was an excuse for us to show Irv our first born - his great-granddaughter. But, over time shabbat became a way for our children to get to know their great-grandfather. The ritual of celebrating Shabbat had little to do with religion. We didn’t talk about the meanings of the prayers, the symbolism of the candles, bread or wine, or anything that could be considered remotely theological. And while Irv was a religious man, I also wondered if this was a spiritual experience for him. I wondered if seeing our 5-year olds reminded him of the 1920s when he was 5, living in Sancti SpĂ­ritus, Cuba, celebrating shabbat with his family. Hearing his voice as he sang the prayers compressed hundreds of years of family ritual into a single, often time chaotic, 5-minute Facetime. Now I’m not saying it is spiritual to yell at your kid to put down the matches, but I know that shabbat will always mean something more to my kids because of the time they spent with their great-grandfather. May his memory be a blessing.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 128 of the Social Work Podcast: Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Interview with Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D. 

Holly, thank you so much for being here on the podcast with me today. 

06:46 Holly Oxhandler: Hey Jonathan, thank you so much for having me. It's such an honor to get to talk with you today. 

06:54 Jonathan Singer: So, what are some of the ways that we think about religion and spirituality showing up in social work?

07:02 Holly Oxhandler: I like to start by thinking about their role in our clients’ lives because, of course, as social workers, you know, our first priority is our clients’ well-being and paying attention to the things that are important to them: their culture, their experiences, the ways of coping with difficult situations, and religion and spirituality can absolutely be woven into those things. In addition to it being tied into negative experiences that folks may have. But, of course, it also involves the practitioner and what they believe in because we can't check that at the door, but we need to be mindful of what those are and how they are connected to the work that we're doing and then certainly we have to be mindful of the role of religion and spirituality within our practice setting and the type of work that we're doing. 

08:03 Jonathan Singer: I remember one of the things that I talked about in my MSW program - there was somebody who was looking to be a Christian therapist, and this was the first time I had ever run across that term. I went to school in Texas; being from the northeast, I had never come across somebody talking about being a Christian counselor, although they exist in the northeast, don't get me wrong, it's just not something that I had ever heard of. This classmate of mine and I - we had some great conversations because for me, bringing religion into the therapy room was exactly the wrong thing to do, right, you don't want to bring religion and spirituality because as I expressed to him, I said “look I have no theological training. Like if somebody has sort of a religious awakening or a spiritual moment - like I don't know what to do with that, like my that's not my bag,” but his take was very different. He was the first person to tell me that you know, most people that seek mental health services actually have some sort of faith community, are part of a faith community, are involved in some sort of spiritual practice, and so that for me was a real eye opener about the intersection between faith, spirituality, what a social worker does, what the clients’ lives are, and we were in an educational setting. Can you talk a little bit more about, sort of, this intersection of mental health and religion and spirituality and like, what does that look like in social work practice?

06:33 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I love the ways in which your colleague kind of started to unpack that and thinking about how this looks in clients’ lives and truthfully, I'm originally from upstate New York, too and so that northern, like I understand that northern culture. It's not as talked about; it just wasn't discussed as much. I remember that and how much that shift of moving to the South - what that looks like and specifically, for me, it was when I was a - shortly after I had moved to Texas, I think within the first handful of years, I'd finished my undergrad, I was working with older adults with anxiety and depression and that really was kind of the first point of entry for me to be thinking about this area in clients’ lives because I had so many older adults who when we would talk about coping statements through their anxiety and their depression, a lot of their coping statements involved their faith, whatever that faith may be, but I was taught during my training while I was doing this work that you don't talk about this area of clients’ lives, like exactly what you were saying, like just don't go there. This is one of those topics that's taboo - you don't want to talk about it and so I really struggled as an early clinician to think like well, what do I do in these situations where this is clearly something that's important for my clients but I don't really have the tools. I'm not trained, you know, as a faith leader or have any kind of theological background to navigate these big, complex topics and it really was when I started learning more about social work and all the ways in which we in social work pay attention to so many different areas of people's lives and the ways in which we refer out for a number of different issues that I started to see oh, this fits in with one of those areas that I can pay attention to, but it doesn't necessarily have to be my responsibility, or it's not my ethical obligation to be the one to navigate some of these spiritual struggles that my clients may be carrying or trying to navigate. So, you know, we really do want to make sure that we are practicing within our training, our competence, but this also fits in within cultural humility and just being able to hold that space to say, “Okay, well, what is it that you believe, and how does that tie in with the work that we're doing, if at all?” Whether it ties in in a positive way where it's a mechanism of which you lean on in order to cope with what you're navigating, or if it is somewhere, you know, one area of your life that there's a lot of pain that we need to be talking about and unpacking, too. I think what we're seeing in the research and in the data now is that we're at a point that not talking about it is actually unethical because of what you said, how so many individuals do see that this is an important area of their lives. We have data showing that clients prefer to talk about it and for the mental health care provider or the social worker to be the one to open that door and at least initiate with the question of, “Is this something that's important to you, and does it relate to the work that we're going to be doing together?” and we have data coming out that's showing that when you ethically integrate clients’ faith into their mental health care, it improves outcomes, so avoiding it or not talking about it is actually a way that can really do some disservice to our clients, I think. 
13:48 Jonathan Singer: Holly can you talk to us about what it looks like to integrate religion and spirituality into mental health care, and then what it means for that to improve outcomes, or what the mechanism is, or how that happens?

14:04 Holly Oxhandler: Yes, absolutely. So, when we think about integrating that can start with just including a question, at least a question, in your biopsychosocial spiritual intake assessment. 

14:19 Jonathan Singer: Oh, there’s the word “spirituality”.

14:20 Holly Oxhandler: Well, look at that! Look at that!

14:22 Jonathan Singer: Now, I’m going to back up. So, the biopsychosocial spiritual assessment - so it says spiritual, but you made this really clear distinction in the beginning between religion and spirituality, and so is there an expectation from the Council on Social Work Education or NASW that we're focusing on the spiritual but not the religious?

14:46 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, it’s really interesting. So, we actually see in NASW's Code of Ethics - I'll say that religion is in there, but we don't see spirituality. And in CSWE, yes, we do have religion and spirituality noted in there as an element of diversity that we need to be paying attention to alongside so many other layers of intersectionality.

15:13 Jonathan Singer: So, in the biopsychosocial spiritual, spiritual really is kind of an umbrella term in that sense. So, if you're doing a biopsychosocial spiritual then it's okay to ask about religion and spirituality, okay. 

15:25 Holly Oxhandler: Yes, absolutely. I think, kind of going back to those definitions that I had mentioned before, they are distinct, but when we really look at religion and spirituality, there are overlaps when it comes to our emotions, the ways in which we engage with the world, the ways in which we think about things, I mean there really are some overlap. So, yeah, spirituality would be that umbrella term. I like that. 

15:48 Jonathan Singer: So, you were - so - I had asked you about how you integrate, and you said, you know, this can start out with a question. What would be a question that you would ask that would start to integrate this into social work practice? 

16:02 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, that’s good. So, what we have seen in the past is that typically folks will just ask what faith tradition individuals, like what is their faith tradition. And I think that's an okay start, but I have kind of been a little bit more vocal about pushing back against that because what we know is that a lot of folks may say, well I, you know, I grew up Catholic, nothing's really changed, like, but I don't practice that, right and so, you know, that doesn't give us a lot of information about that person’s spirituality or their faith so a better question might be to ask, “Is your faith or your spirituality important to you, and does it connect with the work that we will be doing together?” or “How does it connect with the work that we're going to be doing together?” or “Do you want to talk about it as we embark on the work that we're going to be doing together?” 

17:02 Jonathan Singer: Those are so powerful because immediately my gut is, well, I'm not sure if I would be prepared to talk about, like, if they're like, “Yes, I absolutely do. This is central to my life, it's integrated, I can't imagine talking about anything without bringing up how my faith or spirituality is integrated in my life,” and that right then, as a provider, I would be like “Umm okay, so how do I do that?” 

17:31 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, well and I would say you would not be alone in that, Jonathan, like I would say, seriously, we have seen that in some of the data that we've collected that only about 1 in 10 social work practitioners, clinical social workers, had taken a course on this in their graduate training, and we see that less than half have received any kind of continuing education. And, of course, we know that continuing education can look so different, you know, in each different, you know, it could have the same title but it's, you know, the content is going to be different no matter what. Yeah and so I would say that you absolutely aren't alone in that. That's something that we as a profession have, you know, we've grown in a lot of ways over the years, but we do still have some work ahead of us that we get to do.

18:26 Jonathan Singer: So, in terms of this integration, okay, so there's the lack of graduate level education or continuing education in this area, and one of the things that we always say is that, you know, as a social worker, you don't have to have experienced something to be helpful, right, to be effective at helping somebody achieve some goals around a topic. And that's good, I mean, like, it wouldn't work if you had to have experienced homelessness or sexual abuse or the death of a parent in order to help somebody with those topics, right? So, I think that's a good thing, but, you know, if only 1 in 10 have had any graduate level education, I would assume, then, there would have to be some sort of drawing on a personal experience. Like, if you had literally no concept of religion or spirituality at all, again, this would be, I think, a tough thing to address. Like, how many social workers claim to have sort of a faith tradition or a spiritual practice or something like that? Like, and how many compared to clients? 

19:39 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, oh I love – I love all of those questions. That’s so, so good! So, you're right. You know, in the sense that we do not have to necessarily experience something in order to have empathy or to connect with someone and to hold space for their experience, that is so true. And, we do need to be clear and I hope as I'm talking it's clear that in no way am I a proponent of social workers necessarily having a specific faith tradition or having a faith tradition period. The focus is really on our clients and what they believe in and what they're experiencing. I would note that what we have found in the data is that there are two predictors of social workers’ views and behaviors around considering clients’ faith. The second largest predictor is whether or not they receive training and that includes whether or not they had taken a course on this or continuing education. But, the top predictor of whether or not their views or behaviors around integrating clients’ faith is actually their intrinsic religiosity, which is their motivation, the social worker's motivation, to live out their faith. That has - we've seen that over and over again in the studies that that just continually shows up as being the top predictor, and not just in social work, but in other helping professions, too. And so I want to be really clear that, you know, it's that noting that makes it even more important, I think, for us to be mindful of what it is that we believe in and to spend some time thinking through that because clearly what we - or our motivation to live out our faith is impacting what we do in practice and that's extremely important when we see, kind of what you were alluding to a moment ago, that our beliefs and practices as social workers compared to the general population are extremely different. From one study that we did looking at this national sample of clinical social workers, we found that clinical social workers were much more likely to identify as being spiritual compared to the general population and they were less likely to identify as being religious compared to the general population. So, it was around 80% of clinical social workers said that they identify as a spiritual person and about 35% who said that they were religious, and it was almost flipped when you looked at just the general population in terms of those percentages, so that was interesting. 

22:33 Jonathan Singer: Wow!

22:34 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, and clinical social workers see these two terms as being much more distinct compared to the general population, so our vocabulary matters when we're talking with clients about this area of their lives. And then when we look at the breakdown of religious affiliation, we, again, see a very big difference where, at least with clinical social workers, we see about half identify as Protestant compared to the general population, about half identify as Catholic compared to the general population, many, many more clinical social workers identify as Jewish compared to the general population, with it - it's about 22% as compared to about 2%.  

23:21 Jonathan Singer: Wow, wait. So, you’re saying that 22% of social workers identify as Jewish compared to 2% of the general population?

23:27 Holly Oxhandler: Of this sample of clinical social workers, yes, and they - it was systematically and randomly sampled across the US based on zip code, so yeah, that's what we found. 

23:42 Jonathan Singer: Wow, which I have to say, I mean, it speaks to the fact that social work historically as a profession was open to groups that were excluded from other things, right?  And so, my next question, I know that I interrupted you, but I'm really curious about how - if you have any sort of data or information about what are, sort of, effective ways of negotiating this in practice? About, you know, you mentioned the first question, but like actually talking about it or at what point do you refer out or how do you just any of that? 

24:30 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and a complex one, too because I think this is one of those questions where I really, I don't want to make any blanket statements across the board, because this is where the gift of discernment and paying close attention to your clients’ needs and paying close attention to, you know, your perceptions, your biases, your training, and just being really careful, and so, I really want to begin with that. But, you made a great point before that yes, what we believe in could be very different from our clients, or, you know, we also have to be -  so let me first say that yes, we could have one social worker who identifies as one faith tradition and the client identifies with a different one and it could be very different, but I also want to note that there could be ways in which they are very similar. You may have a Buddhist social worker with a Christian client who both elevate the practice of meditation or mindfulness in their own traditions in their own unique ways, and at the same time, you could have a social worker and a client who both would check the same box in terms of their religious affiliation, but be on completely different spectrums on various practices or issues or things like that, so I just want to note that before I mention anything else. There are studies that are coming out in terms of how to integrate this ethically and very carefully and kind of how to navigate this, and, you know, when to discern when to refer out. There's more in the research around integrating religion and spirituality into like cognitive behavioral therapy. There are manuals that are coming out that walk through that in terms of how to weave in coping statements that honor the clients faith, or how to weave in faith based images into thought stopping or cognitive restructuring, or, you know, certain types of skills or behaviors that clients are wanting to engage in. So, I've seen a lot with that, but as far as the referral piece, I think that's, again, why it's so important for social workers to really spend some time to think about what is it that they believe in. How can they hold, and expand their ability to hold, what they believe in alongside what their clients believe in? To be able to sit with the discomfort that may arise if a client doesn't believe the same thing you do but yet ethically you may need to still sit there and hold that space for them and to navigate that, and working with a strong supervisor to help partner with you to determine, okay, is it at a point where I need to refer out? I think especially when there are, like, spiritual struggles that really do require theological training or some form of faith-based training regardless of the faith tradition.  I really think that we need to normalize referring out to faith leaders that are within the clients’ tradition, but I would say that the social workers, it's really on us to do that background work of trying to find faith leaders, diverse faith leaders, within our community that we could refer our clients to and to get to know those faith leaders so we know kind of where they stand on a number of social justice issues so that we don't cause more harm by referring our client out to someone who, you know, who may be in there trying their best to help the client but really they're causing more trauma or harm. So I think ways in which the social worker could have a list of local faith leaders that they can talk through, or ask questions about, or say, “Hey, you know, this client is bringing up this practice what does this mean?” just to increase their cultural competence and humility on these issues.

28:56 Jonathan Singer: I mean I think that's a really important point. It speaks to the fact that the social worker works in a multi-systemic context, right, where, you know, we've been talking a lot about sort of the mental health kind of therapy room relationship, but what you just talked about is our responsibility to ethically and professionally engage in service coordination referral. And I know that in my work with suicide and schools, that particularly when we talk about how school staff members can help to negotiate the processing of grief and loss after someone dies by suicide, the conversation inevitably and rightly so includes faith communities because somebody once told me, I don't know if this is true, but, you know, that there's this kind of hypothesis that faith started because of people trying to explain and understand death, right? Like, why do people die? What happens after death? Right?  Everything else you can sort of touch and feel, and you know there's a sun god and there's a rain god but like, what is death? Right, so that's sort of this idea of sort of contemporary religion and spirituality (and if we have theologians listening and I'm totally wrong please, I apologize). So… 

But no, it does speak to this idea that you can be a mental health provider, there's a death in your community, and if you don't know what the faith traditions are in your community, what their stances are on, say, suicide, or what the resources are, or who in the community is going to be open to coordinating with you, then that is a huge gap in your professional knowledge base, and so I appreciate you bringing that up. And I have to say, I always think about Dr. Julie Hanks, Church of Latter Day Saints, there's been a lot of stuff over the last few years about some of the decisions in the Church of Latter Day Saints around the role of LGBTQ folks in the community and what that means and she's been very outspoken as a social worker. As, you know, she's the wife of a Bishop, and she runs a mental health clinic, and she's been very outspoken about how it is important to distinguish the doctrine that people write versus God’s word, right, and I thought that, for me, was a very powerful distinction and it was helpful thinking about, where do you stand on these things that I know that are important for my client and having that distinction in mind was really helpful.

32:02 Holly Oxhandler: I think that that's really important. I like how you brought that up.

32:06 Jonathan Singer: I want to pivot a little bit because I - and I know that you've done a ton of research on all of this and so we could go down the rabbit hole in terms of research studies, but I actually don't want to do that because, you know, I mean, as a researcher, there are some things that I find exciting but I know that not everyone does, and you've actually - because I know your research, I know that you've actually been speaking from your research and so I think that that's great, you know, everybody can read the research, but you're also a podcaster and you are the cohost with Robert Vore with the Christianity and Mental Health podcast.

32:48 Holly Oxhandler: I am! That’s right! Which you connected us, Jonathan Singer, yes.

33:01 Jonathan Singer: That’s right. I had the honor and pleasure of being on the CXMH podcast with Sherry Molock who is a suicide prevention researcher and she works around developing suicide prevention in African American churches, and so it was a great experience. But, I was wondering if you could talk about how you use this podcast to bring together mental health professionals and religious leaders, how you see the CXMH podcast as a resource for social workers, and even if there have been any conversations that you've had that have really sort of stuck in your mind that you've had in them.

33:54 Holly Oxhandler: Yeah, oh man, I'm just so excited that you asked about this and it really is so fun because when we - when you and I met in 2017 to talk about some of the research it was like at the end of our conversation they were like, “Hey do you know who Robert Vore is? you need to check it out, you know, check out CXMH” and a year later I was like, “Hey ya’ll, I'm the new cohost!” So anyways, it was so fun yeah so, I love this podcast, this opportunity to get to talk with mental health care providers, faith leaders, researchers, those who experience mental health struggles, and just have these conversations. It's just been such an honor to have these - to share these spaces with our guests. But honestly, what I have loved so much about it is that I really do see how it aligns with some of my work with advocacy by disseminating research and making it accessible in a way that anyone can understand because we know that there are struggles with accessing academic journal articles, being able to understand them, and all these things, but I really do love how this podcast ends up being a space for some of that research to be translated and made applicable for faith leaders, mental health care providers, and clients or those who love someone with a mental illness. But it's just been, I mean, it's really just been a delight to get to be on it and to connect with so many folks who are doing such good work. I would say that, the thing that, I don't know, I'm trying to think, I mean there's a lot of conversations that really jump out at me that have been powerful ones that I've had over the last couple of years or a few years being on it, but I think generally just, I think what's been most powerful has been the responses that we've been getting from the listeners. Like, Robert and I sit at our computers and have these conversations with these brilliant people, but then when we see the feedback from listeners around how they have taken the content from the episodes and applied it to their everyday life, or like we had one person who - we had an episode where the guests talked about traveling out and going on pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago and one of our listeners after listening to that episode went on pilgrimage and they told us about it, and it's so humbling, and it's just such a privilege to get to have these conversations. But mostly, I mean, my role, as you mentioned at the beginning, is an Associate Dean for Research and so much of my heartbeat behind this role is how do we get the good, good work that faculty are doing and the research that folks are doing and how do we get it out to the people who really could use this and benefit from it and learn from it rather than keeping it locked away. So, that's kind of what I've loved about it overall.

37:20 Jonathan Singer: I think that's a really great use of a podcast and I think that, you know, in academia we call that social scholarship, right, it is the use of social media, the use of social channels, to not just to share findings from the academy with others, but also to have a dialogue with folks which then changes how we go about answering the kinds of questions we answer. And I frame it that way because that's what I think of as research, right? Research is simply the questions we ask and how we're answering them, and so I think that social scholarship is incredibly powerful and I think it's great that you're doing that around this topic of religion and spirituality, and I have to say, I mean, I think that the last few years, really since 2017, there's been this explosion in social workers taking up podcasting and addressing all sorts of issues and unpacking all sorts of topics that previously have not been unpacked, and so I think that's great that you're doing it that around religion and spirituality.

38:43 Holly Oxhandler: Thank you!

38:44 Jonathan Singer: So, I want to end with this, kind of just this idea that, you know, religion and spirituality is important for clients and providers, it looks different in clients and providers, it's important to bring up, but you don't have to be the one to end the conversation, right, you can you can refer out and that has to do with understanding the different systems, the different faith communities, how to ask questions about those to find the people that are going to be helpful not harmful to your clients. And like you said, there's a ton of research that you've done - I shouldn't say there's a ton of research - you have done a bunch of research on this topic, and you have the CXMH podcast is one way of disseminating that. So, if there's one or two things that you hope social workers really take away from this conversation as they consider the role of religion and spirituality in social work practice, what would that be?

39:53 Holly Oxhandler: I think first I would ask social workers to not be afraid of this topic. You may not have gotten training in it; that doesn't mean that you avoid it completely. There's a lot of topics and areas in our profession where we don't get specific training in, but we're really still called to pay attention to these diverse areas of our clients’ lives, and so, and especially knowing that about 80% of U.S. adults say that their religion is at least somewhat or very important to them, we cannot avoid this topic, and we know that clients say that they want the therapist to be the one to bring it up because of it being taboo, so I want to start by asking social workers to just not be afraid, but to read about this, perhaps, before jumping right into it, like maybe read some books. I have a whole list of books I recommend on my website under the resources tab at that could at least give you a starting point, and there are some trainings that I have linked in there as well. So, I would say start with that, and then the second piece, I would really say would be, I would ask social workers to carve out some time to think through and pay attention to the role of religion and spirituality in your life in whatever way it looks like. Whether you identify as religious or spiritual or neither or both or whatever that looks like for you, and I think as we begin to recognize some of the complexity of it within our own lives, I think we're able to hold space for the complexity of it within our clients’ lives. So, I would ask them to pay a little bit closer attention to that within their own lives as well.

41:56 Jonathan Singer: I appreciate you mentioning these resource links because, you know, this -  I think everybody's on a different place in their journey with us, you know, if we think about the stages of change model, some people are like, “Why do I even have to think about this,” right, kind of precontemplation, and so you have, right, where people can go get resources. I also know that you are on all sorts of social media and I think your handle is @hollyoxhandler.

42:30 Holly Oxhandler: Yep, that’s right

42:31 Jonathan Singer: Which is great that you have that one. And so, you know, what I was just saying for, you know, for the listener, go ahead and subscribe to Holly’s stuff because that is a way that you can get it pushed to you and as you're looking through your feed you’re like, “Oh, wow, that's really cool, like, this new study just came out that has some really important implications for my practice” or, you know, if you're a faculty member, doctoral student, whatever you can also have access to that and I think that's really important. And I have to say that, you know, because you're doing stuff that relates to so many people, that the percentage of people in the United States that say that they have either religious or spiritual practice is huge compared to a lot of the other things that we deal with. If you're listening and you subscribe and you're like, “Oh this is great,” you could share Holly’s information with people that aren't social workers and then they would have access to it too, so that’s a great thing about your work and it's something that is not – not everybody can do that, right, not everybody has a topic that is more easily shared with the general public.

43:51 Holly Oxhandler: Thank you, thank you for noting that; I appreciate it. 

43:55 Jonathan Singer: Yeah, of course. And, you know, Holly, thank you for all of your research and your scholarship over the years on this, and for being on the podcast and talking with us today about religion and spirituality and social work practice. I really appreciate it.

44:12 Holly Oxhandler: Thank you so much, Jonathan. I appreciate you and all the good work that you are doing with this podcast, with the Association, and with just so many of us. You are just such an important part of our profession, and I'm grateful for you, too, so thank you.

44:31 Jonathan Singer: Thank you!

44:32 Holly Oxhandler: Of course! Of course. 

APA (7th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2020, August 22). #128 - Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Interview with Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your podcast was recommended to me by my lecturer in Australia and oh my goodness, I can drive for 24 hours every day and would never get bored listening to your topics. Your perspectives on certain topics, such as Religion and Spirituality, have definitely intrigued me...especially in the social work aspect of things.

Keep up the awesome work!