Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only


Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Psychology and Social Science


Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science

First Supervisor

Dr Ken Robinson


Historically psychology has established itself as a purely scientific discipline distancing itself from its theological, philosophical and pastoral care roots. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing drive for psychologists to possess basic competencies in the domain of

spiritual and religious beliefs and to integrate them into their work with people of faith to strengthen the therapeutic alliance (Vieten, Scamell, Pilsto, Ammondson, Pargament & Lukoff, 2013). People experiencing mental health difficulties often rely on informal sources of support – one of which being spiritual leaders. Many U.S. churchgoers seek support from clergy over health professionals when experiencing emotional and mental health difficulties (Wang, Berglund & Kessler, 2003). To date, no studies have examined help-seeking among practising churchgoers experiencing emotional and mental health difficulties in Australia, and furthermore, it is not clear whether the American findings generalize to help-seeking here. The aim of this research was to explore from whom Australian churchgoers seek help from when they experience emotional and mental health difficulties, the types of problems for which churchgoers sought help, and to examine satisfaction with various help-seeking sources. The research then examined the views and experiences of clergy to investigate their mental health literacy and the quality of support they offer as currently there is a gap in the wider body of literature in this area. The work reported here consisted of three individual studies, including qualitative and quantitative methodologies and analyses using purposive samples. First, interviews were conducted with 15 churchgoers who sought help for an emotional and mental health difficulty. Data on the nature of the difficulty for which help was sought and satisfaction levels with the help provided were also gathered. Second, interviews were conducted with 15 clergy to assess their mental health literacy. Third, 193 Christian churchgoers completed an online survey which investigated their past experiences of seeking help from the clergy; their likelihood of seeking help from other potential sources, and any help-seeking behaviour three months prior to completing the survey.

Results suggested that emotional and mental health difficulties are common among practising Australian churchgoers and that most seek help from at least one source. In this study churchgoers reported marital/relationship difficulties and depression as the areas they sought help for. Having a faith and the support of the church were factors for seeking help. Clergy were one of the three most common sources of support, with almost half of the participants speaking to their clergy about an emotional and mental health difficulty in the past, with a majority indicating that they would purposively select their clergy about a future emotional and mental health difficulty over and above other mental health practitioners. A majority of participants also reported finding their help-seeking experiences with clergy to be positive and expertise of most ministers of religion trustworthy. Clergy demonstrated a moderate amount of mental health literacy and were generally familiar with several mental health treatments. Clergy overall indicated a low level of endorsement of mental health stigma although a level of stigma was present in the case of some participants. A majority of churchgoers accepted clergy referring them on, highlighting the clergy’s influential role although the clergy themselves identified limitations of their own to provide help. Clergy were a highly regarded source of support for churchgoers and it is suggested that there needs to be greater recognition of their role, including more partnership approaches between clergy and mental health practitioners in relation to fostering greater shared care management as well as validating the supportive and protective role the clergy play in an individual’s healing and recovery. These findings suggested that further awareness, training and empirical knowledge about emotional and mental health treatments would be useful for clergy as well as additional research on help-seeking among Australian churchgoers. These findings raise important considerations for practitioners about accepting the importance of spirituality in clients’ lives and incorporating this into the therapeutic alliance to assist in treatment and better outcomes.

LCSH Subject Headings

Help-seeking behavior.

Pastoral psychology.

Pastoral counseling.

Mental health -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.