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Goodwin Bringing Religious Trauma for LGBTQ+ Community into Focus

In-patient, out-patient clinical work motivates third-year DSW student

By David Miller

June 23, 2021

When DSW student Miranda Goodwin announced her capstone project, she was surprised by the reaction of some colleagues.

While there was support and even excitement from her cohort, her topic of how to assess religious trauma in the LGBTQ+ community digs deep into a realm of uncomfortable work experiences, especially for mental health workers.

A white woman poses for a portrait outdoors

Miranda Goodwin joined the first cohort of the relaunched DSW program in 2019. She enters her third year of the program in the fall.

Goodwin can empathize. She has worked with LGBTQ+ youth in both inpatient and outpatient mental health settings, and has navigated the differences, limitations, and exposures a social worker has in both settings.

Her clinical work has revealed a startling gap in protocols for assessing religious trauma, a broad but nuanced spectrum of detrimental experiences for members of the LGBTQ+ community, Goodwin says. Currently, psychosocial in-take assessments are mostly designed to focus on trauma in general, such as abuse or specific traumatic events, prompting the need for enhanced assessment protocols and improved training for social workers.

“I have been looking in the literature and have only found one or two studies with specifically designed questionnaires to address religious trauma in the LGBTQ community,” Goodwin said.

“In my personal practice, so many individuals I work with have discussed their backgrounds related to how their structured belief systems have impacted their relationships with family and communities. I’m looking to see how these traumatic events become ingrained in how people view their world, and how they work through that over time.”

Goodwin’s post-MSW work in mental healthcare motivated her to seek a DSW in the University of Alabama School of Social Work. She will soon begin her third year in the program, where she has connected with other members of her cohort who share similar clinical experiences. These relationships have yielded both a presentation about suicidality with LGBTQ+ youth at the Council on Social Work Education’s 2020 annual conference, and a paper about mindfulness treatment as an intervention for religious trauma, co-authored by DSW classmate Chandler Caldwell.

An emerging form of trauma

Researching suicidality has revealed several distinguishing factors that affirm the need for improved care and assessments for LGBTQ+ people experiencing religious trauma. First, a sense of belongingness is a key protective factor, and if one’s belief system, which is typically chosen by parents or guardians, doesn’t provide that, it can have a negative impact on self-image and their ability to cope with stressors, Goodwin said.

Additionally, one’s religion is ever-present, relative to other forms of abuse or ostracization, such as school bullying, and can intensify their trauma.

“When someone is bullied at school, they may be able leave school and go home to a loving, accepting environment,” Goodwin said. “But our spirituality and religion tend to permeate all aspects of our lives – social events with family and friends, traditional ceremonies such as weddings, or even faith-based schools in which they experience microaggressions. It’s deeply ingrained into all aspects of life, not just something you experience in one environment.”

(Related) PRIDE Month: Chandler Motivated by Clinical Work with Broad Spectrum of LGBTQ+ Clients

Goodwin says cases of religious trauma have been far more prevalent in her private practice work, where those assessments include questions about spirituality, religious affiliation, and any negative experiences clients have had with their faith. She’s even had individuals reach out to her directly to explore these issues.

“The [LGBTQ+] community has seen more support publicly in the policies that have been passed – equality act, legalization of gay marriage,” she said.  “The public support we can give as a community can help foster affirming practices and may help encourage individuals to share their experiences and begin to heal”.

Clinical experiences aside, Goodwin says she’s motivated to provide a blueprint for change to match the energy and general advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community.

“As social workers, we all too often have the call to make change,” Goodwin says, “but one aspect we need to do better in is showing social workers how to take their knowledge and transform that into action”.

This motivation could mean engaging in advocacy through writing letters to policy-makers in addition to gathering at outdoor rallies, Goodwin said. For others, it could simply mean tackling tough and uncomfortable topics through research or practice.

“Working in mental health, we see a lot of things that impact a lot of lives, and still there’s a lot of trepidation in talking about those things openly,” Goodwin said. “But that perpetuates the stigma to continue.”