Baylor Social Work Professors to Assess Religion and Spirituality Competencies in Mental Health Graduate Education

January 19, 2022
Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., and Clay Polson, Ph.D.

Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., and Clay Polson, Ph.D., associate professors in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.

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By Nikki Wilmoth, Director of Marketing Communications, Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, Baylor University

WACO, Texas (Jan. 19, 2022) – Baylor University researchers Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., and Clay Polson, Ph.D., associate professors in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, have been awarded an $843,647 grant from the John Templeton Foundation as a subaward through the University of South Alabama. Oxhandler and Polson are serving as co-investigators of the overall Spiritual and Religious Competencies Project, and are leading one of the team’s four sub-projects. Specifically, the two are seeking to understand faculty views, behaviors and needs regarding graduate education training in religious and spiritual competencies in an effort to better serve those seeking mental health treatment.

“I’m deeply humbled by and grateful for the continued support from the John Templeton Foundation regarding this line of research, including our current project which significantly builds upon our team’s previous study,” Oxhandler said. “As we’ve learned over the years, ethically and effectively integrating clients’ religion and spirituality into mental health treatment has the potential to improve clinical outcomes. However, we still have much to learn about the degree to which these providers are trained to assess and integrate this complex area of clients’ lives into treatment.”

For most of her career, Oxhandler has studied the intersectionality of mental health and spirituality, particularly focusing on a gap in provider training when it comes to addressing clients’ religion and/or spirituality during treatment. Through her research, she has found that practitioners tend to have positive views about this topic but less frequently discuss or assess this area of clients’ lives.

“These providers generally received little to no training around the complexity of religion or spirituality in their clients’ lives or how it may be related to their clinical issue,” Oxhandler said. “Simultaneously, we’ve been studying clients’ views and preferences around discussing this area of their lives in treatment and have found that most consider their spirituality to be relevant to their mental health.”

Exploring graduate training

Oxhandler, Polson and their team are now widening these efforts to explore the inclusion of content on religion and spirituality as it relates to mental health within graduate training programs across disciplines.

“Recent surveys of mental health care providers have shown an ongoing lack of graduate training on the ethical integration of clients’ religious faith and/or spirituality across the four major mental health fields,” Oxhandler said. “This is problematic when research indicates that religion and/or spirituality often play an important role in many Americans’ lives, that ethically integrating this area into mental health treatment can positively influence outcomes and that most clients prefer such integration and perceive their religion/spirituality as relevant to their mental health.”

Seeing all of this come together has motivated her and her colleagues to turn to the next layer of this puzzle. For them, that layer is understanding graduate faculty views and behaviors around training the next generation of providers. 

The grant is a subaward of a $5 million-plus project at the University of South Alabama (USA): Catalyzing a Cultural Shift Toward Integrating Religious and Spiritual Competencies in Mental Health Care Through Training and Systems-Level Change. The project, led by Dr. Joseph Currier, a psychology professor at USA, seeks to identify and address barriers to equipping mental health providers to integrate clients’ religion and spirituality via micro-, mezzo- and macro-level objectives across four sub-projects.

“As one of four sub-projects within the overall $5 million study, our research team at Baylor will be surveying all graduate faculty within social work, counseling, psychology, and marriage and family therapy to better understand what content is being delivered at the root of mental health care providers’ training: their graduate education,” Oxhandler said.

No study has simultaneously examined the views and experiences of all graduate faculty across the four major mental health disciplines with respect to training students to ethically and effectively integrate their clients’ religion and/or spirituality into mental health treatment.

Previous surveys have been limited to a specific discipline or region, utilized assessments without established reliability or validity and/or strictly relied on responses of program directors rather than individual faculty. Social work is the only discipline to conduct a systematic survey of all faculty using a reliable and valid instrument to measure their orientation to training students to integrate clients’ religion and/or spirituality in practice, which was conducted by Oxhandler and Polson in 2019.

Building on previous research

Polson, co-principal investigator for this project, said support from the John Templeton Foundation makes it possible for the Baylor team to continue to build upon and expand work they’ve already done within their own profession – social work – and look at the training provided across the majority of mental health professional programs in the country.

This new project will generate the most rigorous and comprehensive picture yet of the status of training in this area of clients’ lives across the fields of counseling, marriage and family therapy, psychology and social work. Addressing these mezzo-level objectives will provide researchers, as well as the professions and faculty respondents, with an accurate and up-to-date picture of educators’ perceived strengths, opportunities for growth, supports and barriers to integrating religious/spiritual content into their graduate training.

“Working with an interdisciplinary team, we will now be able to take a much broader look at how mental and behavioral health professionals across disciplines are being trained around the integration of clients’ religion and spirituality in practice,” Polson said. “We’ve known for some time that clients desire practitioners who can do this effectively and ethically, and we recognize that graduate training programs are key to ensuring professionals have the knowledge and skills they need to competently accomplish this.”

The long-term goal of the overall project is for every mental and behavioral health professional to possess the basic expertise to ethically assess and consider clients’ religion and spirituality during treatment, if clients so desire.

“We’re excited about the potential for this groundbreaking, interdisciplinary study, including its ability to illuminate how graduate programs across mental health fields are preparing students to integrate clients’ spirituality, as well as opportunities for growth across disciplines,” Oxhandler said.

Jon Singletary, Ph.D., dean of the Garland School of Social Work, expressed how closely this project aligns with the goals of the school.

“It is clear this sub-project will increase our knowledge of mental health educators’ views and behaviors regarding equipping students to ethically integrate clients’ religion/spirituality in mental health treatment, which simultaneously aligns with the Garland School of Social Work’s mission and goals related to equipping students on the ethical integration of faith in social work practice,” Singletary said.

National survey

The team will survey the roughly 10,000 full-time graduate faculty in accredited programs across the country who teach within the four main mental health disciplines. The purpose is to obtain a national, baseline assessment of current faculty views, behaviors and experiences with training students in religious and spiritual competencies. The team also hopes to provide supportive steps in catalyzing an interdisciplinary cultural shift toward religious and spiritual competencies.

Through the survey, the team hopes to gain insight into five areas:

  • Overall orientation (attitudes, self-efficacy, perceived feasibility and behaviors) toward training students to integrate clients’ religion/spirituality in mental health care
  • Factors that help or hinder training students to integrate clients’ religion/spirituality
  • Perceived openness of graduate programs to include content on integrating clients’ religion/spirituality
  • Current methods of delivering religious/spiritual content (either via a specific course or a curriculum infusion model, weaving the topic across courses)
  • Religious/spiritual background of faculty respondents (e.g., religious affiliation, engagement in religious/spiritual practices).

Researchers hope the gathered data will:

  • Provide an accurate and up-to-date picture of mental health educators’ perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, supports and barriers to integrating religious/spiritual content into their programs
  • Clarify the degree to which intentional training in this area of clients’ lives for both students and educators is necessary, shifting the focus to also include training faculty across these professions in future work
  • Inform efforts to disseminate resources for training as well as planning systems-change activities across mental health disciplines
  • Strengthen an evidence-based case for systemic and cultural change across mental health professions to integrate religious and spiritual competencies in training, research and practice
  • Serve as a baseline assessment in evaluating our success in achieving our long-term goal beyond the funding period.

“Ultimately, our hope is that the findings from this survey will serve graduate faculty across these disciplines as they seek to best equip the next generation of mental health care providers,” Oxhandler added. “We also hope these findings indirectly serve future graduate students in these professions and, most importantly, mental health clients seeking help.”


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work is home to one of the leading graduate social work programs in the nation with a research agenda focused on the integration of faith and practice. Upholding its mission of preparing social workers in a Christian context for worldwide service and leadership, the School offers a baccalaureate degree (B.S.W.); a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree available in Waco or online; three joint-degree options, M.S.W./M.B.A., M.S.W./M.Div. and M.S.W./M.T.S., through a partnership with Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business and George W. Truett Theological Seminary; and an online Ph.D. program. Visit to learn more.