Big Future for Catholic-Christian Psychology

Could you imagine the world without Christian psychology or counseling? A world where a secular approach to mental health would ignore the spiritual importance of their clients? Or a world that would be uncomfortable about the mere presence of a crucifix hanging on a counselor’s wall? Before the integration of faith and psychology was largely favored by social scientists in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dr. Paul C. Vitz, a then-atheist, was working as a cognitive/experimental psychologist at New York University. It wouldn’t be until after reading literature by two British writers/lay theologians that he would explore the validity of fusing Christian principles with psychology. [caption id="attachment_661" align="alignleft" width="159"] Dr. Vitz during his early years in the field.[/caption] Nearly 45 years later, Dr. Vitz serves as a senior scholar for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University, where his teachings and research focus on the integration of Christian theology and Catholic anthropology with psychology. His conversion to Catholicism in 1979 changed the trajectory of his career -- consisting of seven book publications, a shared stage with the late psychologist Albert Ellis and innumerable lectures filled with hearty laughter, unforgettable charm and the ability to recall historic psychology-related events at the drop of a dime. In an attempt to document his more recent ventures, he was interviewed in the comfort of his office at Divine Mercy University, located in northern Virginia. Here’s what he had to say: [caption id="attachment_662" align="alignright" width="298"] Dr. Paul Vitz, Sr. Mary Patrice Ahearn, R.S.M., M.S., and Dr. Gladys Sweeney celebrate Sr.'s successful defense of her dissertation "To Attach or Detach."[/caption] Q: How long have you been a faculty member at Divine Mercy University and how did you get involved? Dr. Vitz: “I’ve been here since the very beginning in 1999. I met Gladys Sweeney [former dean] and Bill Nordling [former dean and current professor] during a visit to Washington, D.C., to teach psychology at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, located on the Catholic University of America campus. We all wanted to give continuing education (CE) seminars to provide a Catholic-Christian perspective on psychology. This led us to establishing the Catholic Institute for the Psychological Sciences (CIPS) program*, which consisted of seminars and lectures that provided CE credit.” *CIPS is now known as Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) at Divine Mercy University, which offers two accredited graduate degree programs: a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology and an Master’s in Psychology (online). Q: What has been your most impactful contributions to the field of psychology? Dr. Vitz: “I’ve written a number of books that have had some impact on the field. The first one I wrote was “Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship,” published by Eerdmans in 1977. That was the first kind of Christian critique of humanistic psychology. It made the most impact because, immediately, people outside of New York University (NYU) knew about my work. So all of a sudden, I ran into a lot of Christian intellectuals and academics (mostly Evangelicals and a few Catholic priests) who got in touch with me. The priests understood what I was doing, but they were more focused on theology and spirituality than psychology. [caption id="attachment_663" align="alignnone" width="961"] Book covers of Dr. Vitz’s three three most impactful books on psychology.[/caption] “For psychology, my next impact was a book ‘Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious.’ It put Freud in a very different perspective than that described by his secular biographers. It just got translated into Italian and published. My most recent impact is from ‘Faith of the Fatherless: The psychology of Atheism,’ revised edition published in 2013. There have been a string of articles also, on various other psychological topics.” Q: Who were the most influential “thinkers” of your life and why? [caption id="attachment_668" align="alignright" width="300"] Dr. Paul Vitz speaking with Archbishop William E. Lori (of Baltimore).[/caption] Dr. Vitz: “The most influential persons in my life were those who affected by conversion from atheism to Christianity -- C.S. Lewis (Protestant) and G.K. Chesterton (Catholic). They were both very intelligent and knowledgeable and very able writers, but particularly C.S. Lewis made it clear to me that being intelligent, educated and Christian were completely compatible. In fact I saw that Christianity was far more meaningful and powerful than any political philosophy I had ever come across.” Q: Have you faced any obstacles in your career or research? How did you overcome them? Dr. Vitz: “I had just become a tenured psychology professor at NYU and was working as a cognitive experimental psychologist. And then I became a Christian psychologist, which resulted in me stopping cognitive experiments and research for 45 years, until recently. [At this point in the interview, Dr. Vitz gently tossed a document on the desk. The title on the cover reads “A hierarchical model of binary pattern learning,” published in the Journal of Learning and Motivation (February 2019)]  “This [cognitive psychology] was the sort of research I was doing 45 years ago.” “I had obstacles at NYU. I had no colleagues in my department or in the university because there were no other supportive Christian professors. So it was a lonely, isolating environment, which was difficult. But that’s why contact from Evangelicals at other universities was so important to me. Of course the department didn’t like what I was doing so my raises dropped off. But I was hired as a cognitive/experimental psychologist and so I no longer met the Psychology Department needs, except for what I could contribute with teaching and administration. Anyway, God provided outside financial help which made up for low raises.” Q: Are you a member of any associations or organizations that help enrich your knowledge? Dr. Vitz: I’m a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. [caption id="attachment_666" align="alignright" width="300"] Dr. Paul Vitz talking with a student while seated with his wife Evelyn (right) at the opening ceremony for Divine Mercy University.[/caption] Q: What has been the most rewarding part of teaching for you? Dr. Vitz: The most rewarding part is to teach intelligent, young Christians and Catholics the way in which psychology, and all of its scientific validity, can, in fact, be combined with the faith; and to see them understand it and then to develop it in new ways. It has also been exciting to be in contact with Christian psychologists, now, all over the world. Q: What do you predict will change in the field of psychology? Dr. Vitz: “A couple of things: 1) The hostility between most psychology and religion will decrease. 2) Religious integration with psychology will increase because there will be more evidence that religion can be a major help to people struggling with mental health problems. 3) And I believe this will lead to the development of more professional organizations with a pro-religious commitment, and these new organizations are likely to gain appropriate social and political influence. “Overall, I think there’s a big future for Christian psychologists and psychotherapists because the Catholic population has been the most neglected. In the United States, there are some disciplines that have too many professionals, in relation to the demand, but there are not too many Christian or Catholic psychologists.” Watch Dr. Vitz’s video presentation “Uniting Faith & Psychology” to learn the significance of the approach on psychology by the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. You can read Dr. Vitz’s full biography on Wikipedia or our university’s website. Sign up to learn more about the psychology programs offered at Divine Mercy University.

Staggering Suicide Statistics

Suicide is not a topic we all like to talk about. But recent incidents have brought more attention to this unfortunate event that's often linked to severe depression. At Divine Mercy University, we strive to educate our students and the general public of ways to prevent suicide and provide adequate mental health services. Recently, we hosted an on-campus lecture entitled "How to Understand Suicide and its Aftermath: From a Scientific & Faith Perspective," presented by Melinda Moore, Ph.D., a Licensed Psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University. Her interest in Posttraumatic Growth emerged from her own experience with suicide and the changes that experience created within her allowing for her current career path and personal interests and relationships. Watch the recording of the suicide lecture to learn how a faith-based approach to mental disorders can help save lives. We also wanted to share suicide prevention resources with you, in the case that you or someone you know may need help:
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
In our psychology and counseling programs, we teach students how to act effectively in situations where de-escalation, negotiation, and crisis intervention are needed, such as suicide attempts. The courses also train students on the best ways to diagnose and treat common psychological problems to prevent severe disorders from developing. Sign up to learn more.

Fostering Inclusivity in Eating Disorder Awareness

Did you know that an eating disorder is a physical AND mental illness that affects people of ALL backgrounds? Instead of pigeonholing this condition to one particular category of people, National Eating Disorders Association's Awareness Week (February 25-March 3) is fostering inclusivity this year to show how this disease impacts "individuals at all stages of body acceptance and [to emphasize that all] eating disorders recovery .... stories are valid." This message matches the association's 2019 theme: Come As You Are. To gain more insight on eating disorders for this week of awareness, we reached out to clinical psychologist Laura Cusumano, Psy.D., who specializes in eating disorder treatment. She is also an alumna of Divine Mercy University and currently provides treatment through Potomac Behavioral Solutions in Arlington, VA. Dr. Cusumano has extensive experience working with people suffering from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). In her 2017 dissertation for the Psy.D. program, she integrated the virtues of humility and temperance into Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) to develop a Catholic adaptation of RO DBT for those with anorexia nervosa. "I found the RO DBT material to be well suited for this adaptation," she said "and I would like to expand upon it in the future." In an email response, she shared detailed answers to questions about eating disorders, their causes/effects, stigmas still associated with them and more! Read on to gain a deeper understanding of the disease that's estimated to impact 20 million women and 10 million men in America at some point in their lives. Q - How can someone detect if their friend or loved one has an eating disorder, and how do you safely address it? Dr. Cusumano - There are several subtle signs that may indicate that a person is struggling with an eating disorder. You may notice that your friend or loved one has started to talk about eating "clean" or going on a diet. The person may make negative comments about his or her body, express a desire to lose weight, and/or compare his or her body to other people's bodies. You may observe your friend or loved one making changes to his or her exercise routine, and the person may become anxious or upset if he or she misses a workout. Your friend or loved one may decline invitations to go out to dinner or prepare a separate meal when eating with others. During a meal, your friend or loved one may engage in unusual eating behaviors, such as cutting food into very small pieces. The person may also stop sharing meals with others altogether. You may also notice a change in your friend or loved one's mood and energy level. If you are concerned that your friend or loved one may have an eating disorder, I encourage you to share your concerns privately with that person. Spend some time doing research on eating disorders so that you have information to share. Use "I" statements to express that you feel worried and to share things that you have observed about the person's behavior (e.g., "I'm worried about how frequently you're going to the gym."). Your friend or loved one is more likely to be receptive to what you have to say when you phrase things in this way. Having this discussion may feel awkward and uncomfortable for both of you, and that person may have a negative reaction or deny that something is wrong. Let your friend or loved one know that you are here to talk whenever he or she is ready and offer to provide the person with resources. Encourage your friend or loved one to seek professional help. Q - What are common resources that you are confident in providing to men and women with an eating disorder? Are any resources gender specific? If so, why? Dr. Cusumano - I really like the National Eating Disorder Association's (NEDA) website: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org. It has a wide breadth of information about the spectrum of eating disorders and how they typically manifest. The information on the website ranges from general (e.g., "What are Eating Disorders?") to specific (e.g., the "Identity & Eating Disorders" section). It is important to note that eating disorders can affect people of any race, ethnicity, sexual identity, or gender. There is gender-specific information on the NEDA website. This is because eating disorders manifest differently across different populations. For example, most women with eating disorders desire to have bodies that fit our culture's thin ideal. In contrast, many men with eating disorders have a drive for increased muscularity. Body image distress varies between men and women, and this should be taken into consideration during treatment planning. The Academy of Eating Disorders, a professional association dedicated to eating disorder research, education, treatment, and prevention, also has a variety of useful resources available on its website: www.aedweb.org. Q - How are therapists currently working with physicians to diagnose and prevent eating disorders? Dr. Cusumano - When a patient starts therapy with me, I refer him or her to a dietitian for nutrition counseling and a physician for medical monitoring. Eating disorders can be life-threatening, so it is extremely important for the patient to work with a treatment team. Medical complications can include dizziness, fainting, dental problems, electrolyte imbalances, arrhythmia and other heart problems, muscle weakness, organ failure, and menstrual irregularities in women. It is essential for therapists to consult regularly with physicians about their mutual patients to ensure that patients are being treated at the correct level of care. A patient may underreport symptoms, and if medical stability is not assessed, he or she may not receive the proper intensity of treatment. With regard to prevention, therapists encourage physicians to promote positive body image when talking to their patients and to educate them about nutrition and healthy amounts of physical activity. I have worked with patients who have reported that the only strategy their physicians recommended to address their health problems is to lose weight. Even though physicians may have good intentions when they make this recommendation to patients, the recommendation could backfire and trigger body image distress and an eating disorder in people who are predisposed to develop them. Therapists work to educate the physicians with whom they share patients in order to craft an approach that is both empathetic and direct about the dangers of eating disorders in an effort to prevent them. Q - How can someone with an eating disorder reframe their thinking patterns so they do not consider themselves overweight or undesirable?  Dr. Cusumano - Enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders (CBT-E) is an evidence-based treatment that has demonstrated to be effective in treating a transdiagnostic range of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Treatment consists of helping a patient establish a regular pattern of eating and challenging the factors that maintain the person’s eating disorder, such as dietary restraint and overevaluation of shape and weight (i.e., body image distress). Through the use of cognitive reframing, patients learn how to challenge their unhelpful thinking patterns in an effort to develop a more balanced way of thinking about themselves. The process of challenging one’s cognitive distortions about body image is often difficult, and it can take a while for patients to recognize that their worth is not dependent on their appearance. It is often helpful for patients to participate in group therapy that focuses on body image so that they can support one another through this process. Q - What is a misconception about eating disorders you'd like to be dispelled? Dr. Cusumano - Most of the time, when people think of anorexia nervosa, they imagine that all those who suffer from anorexia are underweight. Anorexia nervosa is diagnosed when a person restricts his or her energy intake to less than what his or her body needs to function (based on factors including age, height, and gender), resulting in low body weight. Anorexia is also characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and body image disturbances are also present. Despite the diagnostic criterion regarding low body weight, anorexia can affect people of all shapes and sizes. The intense fear of being fat and body image distress can occur in people who restrict their energy intake and remain in a normal weight range or above average weight range. This is known as atypical anorexia nervosa. Many of my patients who struggle with restriction have a formal diagnosis of atypical anorexia. It is a myth that a person must be underweight to suffer from anorexia. Q - After getting your Psy.D. degree, what other training did you seek to specifically treat clients with eating disorders? Dr. Cusumano - My primary training in treating people with eating disorders actually took place while I was still enrolled in the Psy.D. program in the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University. I completed my internship at The Emily Program in Minnesota. The Emily Program is dedicated to providing treatment to those suffering from eating disorders. During my internship, I worked at the outpatient, intensive outpatient, and partial hospitalization levels of care. I had wonderful supervisors who guided me through learning evidence-based methodologies for treating eating disorders. I learned how to support patients during therapeutic meals and to challenge them to use skills effectively so that they could work toward recovery. My time at The Emily Program was extremely valuable to my development as a therapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. Currently, I work as a postdoctoral fellow at an outpatient practice that specializes in providing evidence-based treatment of eating disorders. I have gained training in family-based treatment (FBT) for anorexia nervosa, which is the primary evidence-based treatment for adolescents. I hope to continue my training and may pursue certification as an eating disorder specialist later in my career. Q - What advice would you give to parents who think their child or teenager has an eating disorder? Dr. Cusumano - As a parent, recognizing that your child is exhibiting signs and symptoms of an eating disorder can be frightening and leave you feeling helpless. If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder, it is important to discuss your concerns with your child in a compassionate, not critical, manner. Remember, your child is suffering from an illness, and he or she is not completely in control of his or her behaviors. When you talk to your child, focus on the behaviors you have observed, rather than your child’s appearance. Use “I” statements when sharing your concerns. Gather information from resources such as the NEDA and AED websites, and seek professional support. Many parents will find FBT to be the best treatment option for their child. From an FBT perspective, parents are the best equipped at providing the care that their child needs to recover from an eating disorder. An FBT therapist will guide and empower parents to take control back from their child’s eating disorder so that their child can recover. If your child is struggling with an eating disorder, know that recovery is possible! Treatment outcomes are generally positive when eating disorders are detected early. Learn more about the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology program offered at Divine Mercy University to gain skills to treat those who suffer from eating disorders.

Managing Holiday Anxiety

By Jessie Tappel, LCPC, Director of Communications, Divine Mercy University The holidays are an exciting time of good cheer, warm family traditions, and spending time with friends. Or, are they? For many people, the idea of attending large family gatherings, numerous holiday parties, traveling to or from home can produce anxiety and stress. In fact, anxiety and depression are very common during the holiday season. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), three out of four people surveyed reported feeling anxious and/or depressed during the holiday season. The American Psychological Association also notes that the added stress of the holidays will increase a women’s reliance on unhealthy behaviors more often than men, placing them more at risk for effects of stress, both physically and mentally. Juggling work and added family responsibilities, such as planning for holiday gatherings, shopping for gifts and cooking, leave most women feeling like they can’t take time to relax during the crunch to get everything done. Where does this pressure come from? We might think of the holidays as a magical time, one of rest and relaxation and filled with joy and gratitude for all that we have. Hollywood paints a picture of what our holidays should look like, and there is undue pressure for our holidays to look like a scene out of a 1950’s sitcom. Is this ever the reality?  Nostalgia returns with every commercial of fireplaces, warm food, snow falling, and opening presents on Christmas morning. We long for the day when we can return to the idyllic picture of no responsibility and the proposed meaning of relaxation. How is it possible to relax and enjoy the holidays when they are the busiest and oftentimes most stressful time of the year? The holidays are a time that uncover memories of the past year or force reflection on the year’s accomplishments and events, either positive or negative. We self-evaluate how we did compared to those around us. Did we reach our goals or fail yet again to complete that pesky New Year’s resolution? The perceived societal pressures that naturally form throughout the holiday season can amplify these memories and expectations for the future. The unrealistic expectations that are placed on oneself can induce a greater anxiety during these times. Comparing your life to those around you can be an additional, unnecessary stressor that leads to unrealistic expectations for you and your family. It is important to remember that everyone faces challenges throughout the holidays, in varying forms, sizes, and intensity. This time of year is not all about carving turkeys, peppermint mochas and spiced candles. It is easy to feel pulled in many directions over the holidays. Trying to set healthy boundaries in order to reduce stress and exhaustion can be difficult. It is important not to be focused on what the holidays are supposed to be like and how you are supposed to feel. What is the true meaning of the holidays? If you are comparing your experience to a greeting card ideal, you will fall short every time. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Remembering your limits is important. It is impossible to control everything that will happen these next months. Separating what events are in and out of your control is helpful in reducing anxiety and undue pressure to perform to a self-imposed standard.   Keeping in mind the reason for the holidays will refocus the concern and anxiety that you may feel. “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Anxiety and worry place the focus on the wrong issues and causes us to lose sight of the reason for which the holidays exist. Peace of mind is something that everyone desires. We all want to be able to rest and enjoy life, family, friends, and work and not get caught up in the drama of the season.   Busyness breeds distraction. It is important that we focus on what the meaning of the season is rather than all the details that provoke anxiety. In the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha gives an example of overcoming the self-imposed to-do list. Luke tells us that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” Who was telling her that the preparations had to be done? Jesus calls Martha to come and spend time with him and break away from the obligations she felt she had to do.   During this holiday season spend some time reflecting on what is truly important. Make a plan to overcome the stress and anxiety easily felt throughout these weeks and let us truly contemplate the words of the Gospel “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22)

Facing the Realities of Mental Illness

“Whoever suffers mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness, and has an inalienable right to be considered a person and treated as such.” - St. John Paul II Mental health is a critical component of wellbeing.  As a society, we don’t have to look far to encounter those who struggle with mental illness. Statistically, 1 out of every 4 people will experience mental illness in their lifetime.   The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes October 10th as World Mental Health Day. It is an annual event that provides an opportunity “for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide,” according to the Mental Health Foundation. This year, the theme for World Mental Health Day is focused on young people and mental health in a changing world. Young people are more anxious and depressed than ever.  According to the WHO, half of all diagnosed mental illnesses begin at the age of 14, and many of the illnesses we experience are either left undetected or untreated. In terms of the burden of the disease among adolescents, depression is the third leading cause affecting their health, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages between 15 and 29. As the rates for mental illness increase, we cannot neglect the grave problem that the stigma of mental illness presents, especially for young people.   So how can we even begin to take part in combating the stigma of mental illness?   Pope John Paul II gives us an important insight on how to take care of those suffering in a 2003 address on the theme of “depression”: “The role of those who care for depressed persons and who do not have a specifically therapeutic task consists above all in helping them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, interest in the future, the desire to live.  It is therefore important to stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved.”   Every human person has a need for family and relationships within society, and for many who struggle with mental illness, isolation and loneliness  are realities in their daily life. We are all asked to contribute our gifts and talents--through our own personal vocations--to reach those who are suffering in the ways which we are able, integrate them into a community and begin to combat the reality of mental illness. Find out how you can help combat mental illness by furthering your education with a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology or counseling. Request program information today!
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.