Trauma Psychology News

Religiosity / Spirituality & WellBeing in BIPOC & LGBTQ+ Communities

Religiosity / Spirituality & WellBeing in BIPOC & LGBTQ+ Communities

In brief
Claire J. Starrs & Zaine A. Roberts

Religiosity has been shown to be related to indicators of well-being such as hope, optimism, happiness, and quality of life (Gonçalves, et al., 2017; Panzini, et al. 2017; Peres, et al., 2017), as well as lower distress, even in the face of major stressors, such as cancer, bereavement, and traumatic events like sexual assault (Ahrens et al., 2010; Gudenkauf et al., 2019). Studies have suggested various mechanisms for this protective effect, including through increases in meaning making (Steger & Frazier, 2005), social support (Ellison & George, 1992), self-regulation (Watterson & Geisler, 2012), and self-efficacy (Abdel-Khalek & Lester, 2017). With the rise of secularism in the 20th century, at least in much of the West (Bruce, 2003; Lambert, 2004), broader conceptualizations of religiosity have been considered, under the umbrella term spirituality. Currently, there is some consensus that religiosity captures more formal religious beliefs and values, and collectivistic practices that generally include a public and institutional sphere (Pargament, 1997). Alternatively, spirituality usually describes more humanistic beliefs and values, including feelings of connectedness to the self, others, nature, and the sacred (i.e., to something greater than oneself), and spirituality is typically a more private and internal experience (Chagas et al., 2023; Reed, 1992). These two dimensions are not necessarily separate, as spirituality can be present at any level of religiosity (Zinnbauer & Pargament, 2005). Studies specifically examining spirituality, although less numerous, have supported a protective effect, and supported mechanisms include increases in hope (Gibson & Hendricks, 2006), and meaning making (Salsman et al., 2011).

Coping can be defined as the internal and external resources that are mobilized to manage stressors (Haan, 1977). Coping includes both adaptive and maladaptive strategies, and there is substantial evidence showing that maladaptive coping is associated with higher distress, and adaptive coping with lower distress (e.g., Cukrowicz, et al., 2008; Jaser et al., 2005). At the intersection of religiosity/spirituality and coping, is religious coping (RC, Pargament, 1997). RC is multidimensional, including behaviors (e.g., prayer, meditation), emotions (e.g., comfort through spiritual connection), cognitions (e.g., cognitive reappraisal and reframing), and relationships (e.g., seeking pastoral care). As with general coping, RC can be maladaptive (e.g., interpreting stressors as a punishment from ‘God’ or karma), which has been shown to lower quality of life and increase depression, or it can be adaptive (e.g., finding solace in prayer) leading to less distress and more personal growth (Pargament et al., 1998). Difficulties in defining more secular spirituality have hindered equivalent examinations in non-religious persons. Although, the few existing studies have also shown protective effects. For example, Roming and Howard (2019) found that higher spiritual coping was related to higher life satisfaction in college students.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)

Religiosity/Spirituality has been shown to be important across minority groups, including in African American and Black Caribbean groups (Taylor & Chatters, 2010), Latinx communities (Campersino et al., 2009), and Indigenous Americans (Garroutte et al., 2003). Furthermore, despite overall growing secularism, a recent large study found that 41% of Black Americans and 30% of Hispanics reported that their faith had grown stronger during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 20% of Whites (Gecewicz, 2020). Protective effects include lower suicidality (see Gearing & Alonzo, 2018 for a general review) and decreased depression (see Braam & Koenig, 2019 for a general review). The principal mechanism that has been suggested for this adaptive effect in ethnic minority communities is high levels of RC, as they deal with ongoing minority stress (Bhui et al., 2008). Most studies have examined Black and Latino samples in the US (e.g., Sanchez et al., 2015), however similar effects have been found other minority groups, for example Adam and Ward (2016) showed that RC buffered the negative effects of acculturative stress leading to higher life satisfaction, in a Muslim sample living in New Zealand. Suggested explanations for higher levels of RC across minority communities focus on sources of minority stress such as disparities in access to health care, reluctancy to seek psychological support due to stigma, and the general low cultural competency of health care providers (Harris et al., 2021; Nair & Adetayo, 2019). In addition, there is a long history of medical racism, especially, cruel nonconsensual medical interventions and experimentation on Black and Indigenous persons, in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, which fuels mistrust in mainstream healthcare (Starrs & Herne, 2021), whereas, spiritual and religious resources are widely available and generally free, making them considerably more accessible than many other mental health focused services.

LGBTQ+ Communities

The picture is more complex within the gender and sexual minority community. There are many studies showing increased distress in LGBTQ+ individuals related to discrimination, oppression and rejection stemming from religiously motivated homophobia and harmful clinical practices, such as conversion therapies (e.g., Newman & Fantus, 2015; SAMHSA, 2015), and this distress effect may be even higher in those with intersectional identities (Jaspal et al., 2021). Furthermore, there has been a recent rise in religious based discriminatory legislation against LGBTQ+ individuals, especially transgender youth, across several countries, which raises serious concerns about related decreases in health and well-being (Richgels, et al., 2021). Regarding intra-individual processes of religiosity and distress in LGBTQ+ individuals, research has mostly focused on internalized homophobia. Internalized homophobia refers to negative attitudes about homosexuality that are applied to the self (Meyer & Dean, 1998). Internalized homophobia has been associated with poorer mental health and suicidality (see Newcomb & Mustanski, 2010 for review). Furthermore, exposure to non-gay affirming religious settings has been shown to increase internalized homophobia, thus creating an additional stress burden for queer individuals (Barnes & Meyer, 2012). Research suggests that to resolve the internal conflict created by religious doctrine around homosexuality, sexual minority individuals adopt various strategies including changing religions, reexamining, reframing and/or rejecting certain teachings, abandoning religion either temporarily, completely or stopping attending formal services and turning to a more personal sense of spirituality (Leong, 2006; Schuck & Liddle, 2001; Yip, 1997, 2005). Another concerning issue highlighted by the research is that many gender and sexual minority individuals are reluctant to seek help in times of distress (Bivens et al., 1995; Schaefer & Coleman, 1992), especially for those in non-gay affirming environments. For example, Wolff and colleagues (2016) found that college religious affiliation was associated with poorer mental health outcomes for sexual minority students.

There is considerable evidence showing higher levels of suicidal ideation and attempts in gender and sexual minority persons than in cisgender heterosexuals (Haas et al. 2010; King et al. 2008; McDaniel et al. 2001; Plöderl et al., 2010). At the same time, research in community samples has shown that religiosity confers some protection against suicidality (e.g., Dervic, et al., 2004; Gearing & Lizardi, 2009). Studies examining this protective effect in LGBTQ+ samples are sparse. One exception is Kralovec et al.’s study in an LGB Austrian sample (2014), who found that religious affiliation was associated with higher internalized homophobia but with fewer suicide attempts and a sense of belonging to one’s religious community was associated with significantly less suicidal ideation during the last 12 months. These authors suggested that religion might therefore be both a risk and a protective factor against suicidality in religiously affiliated sexual minority individuals (Kralovec et al., 2014).

Multiple Minority Communities

Finally, given the findings supporting religiosity-spirituality as a resilience factor in BIPOC communities, an interesting additional area of research is studies with multiple minority members of the LGBTQ+ community. As with the non-intersectional research, findings suggest considerable differences by population, and that different components of religiosity-spirituality may be toxic for people with marginalized identities (Bliss, 2011; Hackney & Sanders, 2003). However, there is also emergent research showing protective effects. For example, one study showed that religious support, along with family and social support, negatively correlated to psychological distress experienced by Black sexual minority college students (Lefevor, et al., 2020). In a qualitative study, Singh and McKleroy (2011) analyzed the experiences of transgender BIPOC persons who had survived severe trauma (e.g., hate crimes) and showed that, cultivating spirituality and hope for the future was connected to resilience and increased well-being. And in a recent study, Currin et al. (2021) showed that young adults who identified as BIPOC and LGBTQ+ reported lower distress, higher resilience and hope, as well as significantly higher spiritual support than White LGBTQ+ participants.

Clinical implications

Although psychotherapy has sometimes been seen as incongruent with religion and spirituality, overall, the research suggests that it is a salient part of people’s social and psychological identity, even if that salience may be on the decline (Siddiqui & Kapoor, 2021). Furthermore, given the existing findings suggesting that R/S is especially important in certain ethnic, cultural and social communities, and that it is a significant contributor to resiliency and/or vulnerability in these populations, that are already dealing with heightened levels of minority stress, to not explore the subject and it’s impacts in therapy is problematic. Approaches that harness the aspects of spirituality that have been shown to be protective, in particular, the development of meaningfulness and trust, of values and connectedness with the self and others, should be prioritized. As well as, exploring and reframing those aspects that may be contributing to distress. Minority communities face high levels of stressors that are outside of their personal control, particularly those related to discrimination and oppression, and systemic economic disadvantage (Williams, 2019; Sutton & Perrin, 2016). As such, avenues of intervention that support growth and well-being beyond just those that focus on changing stressful events themselves are essential. Furthermore, research has shown that individuals who have experienced religious conflict, report several helpful resources including extended social support, such as reaching out to alternative LGBTQ+-affirming congregations and leaders, as well as books and online communities, that can provide emotional support through peers and role models, as well as appraisal support for validating their experiences (Schuck & Liddle, 2001; Mallari, 2023) Thus, therapist should be prepared to refer clients to external resources such as support groups, and gay- affirming congregations, when possible. One positive aspect of the lockdowns related to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, is that many R/S communities were forced to explore the use of online spaces, and recent studies have confirmed that these on-line groups can positively contribute to well-being (e.g., Keisari et al., 2022), thus extending the availability of resources that can be offered to clients who may be geographically isolated from supportive communities (e.g., LGBTQ+ youth in non-affirming environments). Finally, the majority of mental health professionals are not themselves members of the communities that they treat, for example in 2015, 86% of psychologists in the US were White (Lin, et al., 2018), as such, including some focus on spirituality in psychotherapy with minority clients could be an effective and culturally responsive approach for non-minority clinicians.

Claire J. Starrs
Claire J. Starrs

CLAIRE J. STARRS, PhD is a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and an adjunct lecturer at McGill University. Her research focuses on historical and intergenerational trauma, as well as risk and resiliency in diverse populations, especially LGBTQ+ communities. For more information, see her lab website:

Zaine A. Roberts
Zaine A. Roberts

ZAINE A. ROBERTS graduated from SUNY Potsdam with a BA, major in Psychology and Criminal Justice, and a minor in Human Services. He is currently a second-year graduate student in the Applied Clinical Psychology program at Penn State Harrisburg. Recently, he became the Vice President of their PRIDE organization where he works with the community to promote a safe and accepting campus environment for LGBTQ+ students. His research interests include youth, religion, gender and sexuality processes. He will be applying to doctoral programs in Fall 2024.

Citation: Starrs, C. J., & Roberts, Z. A. (2023).Religiosity/spirituality and wellbeing in BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities: In brief. Trauma Psychology News, 18(3), 16-20.

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