A Community Mental Health Resource for Nearly 50 Years

By Les Gura

When CareNet Counseling was created in 1972, it grew out of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Department of Pastoral Care and the ministry of chaplains working with patients and family members.

Today, CareNet is one of the largest hospital-based community counseling services in the nation. Its nearly 100 counselors, social workers, and marriage and family therapists work in 30 offices throughout North Carolina, taking a modernist, trauma-informed approach to mental health care.

Yet CareNet’s unique commitment to spirituality as a key component in counseling remains as strong as ever.

Russell Jones, director of CareNet’s Residency in Psychotherapy and Spirituality, lays out the philosophy simply. “In my mind, everybody is spiritual,” Jones says. “In the same way that everyone is physical and psychological and social, everyone is spiritual. And it’s important in offering care to the whole person that we have some awareness of that dimension of human experience.”

This approach is one CareNet is carrying forward nationally.

Bryan Hatcher, CareNet’s president, says he is proud that the organization is training therapists in a new curriculum on spiritually integrated counseling developed by Jones, who also last year published a text, Spirit in Session: Working with Your Client’s Spirituality (and Your Own) in Psychotherapy.

“The curriculum, approved by the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (now formally known as ACPE: The Standard for Spiritual Care and Education), means that our counselors have the most advanced training to enhance their own life knowledge and skills,” Hatcher says. “And because the average resident in CareNet is 40 years old, they have a wealth of experience in working with clients of all ages confronting life issues ranging from addiction to anxiety, depression to grief.

“Being able to incorporate spirituality into counseling gives our team members unique skills that are critical in providing trauma-informed care.”

A Rich History of Helping

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center began providing pastoral care—chaplains supporting patients and their family members when they were hospitalized—in 1947, making it the second-oldest clinical pastoral care ministry in the United States.

CareNet was formed by Wake Forest Baptist’s Department of Pastoral Care in 1972 as a response to a need identified by pastors and faith leaders for a professional counseling organization sensitive to their followers’ spiritual needs, in addition to their psychological, social and physical needs—before, during and after hospital stays.

One of CareNet’s founding principles is that the organization addresses the mental health needs of the community regardless of a person’s race, religion, gender or socioeconomic status.

Today, CareNet is a nonprofit, wholly-owned subsidiary of Wake Forest Baptist. It is supported by the generosity of free or low-cost educational programs it offers in a given year. For example, CareNet has sponsored training in resiliency to teachers, first responders and others at seminars in recent years. It also has conducted screenings of documentaries on mental health topics such as anxiety and social media use.

“In every way, the CareNet of 2020 remains as committed to the same core values by which we were founded 48 years ago,” Hatcher says. “We continue to explore new means to promote mental health and to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment.”

At the Counseling Forefront

Jones began a training program for CareNet in 2008, to fill a void created with a decline of traditional pastoral education programs in the 1990s. From the start, the training that he offers to CareNet residents—and frequently other CareNet professionals who join in different courses—has focused on the importance of trauma-informed therapy. Jones became a trainer in a resiliency training program that has helped dozens of professional and nonprofessional caregivers around North Carolina learn to address clients’ needs in a compassionate, comprehensive way. Jones also is a proponent of Internal Family Systems therapy and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, both newer approaches to treatment for trauma.

“Being trauma informed is foundational for anybody in the field of therapy. I’m delighted that we’re using the amazing resources that the therapy world has brought to bear and made available to therapists and thus clients in the last 20 years,” Jones says.

Why and how the two issues—trauma and spirituality—intersect is crucial for good therapy, he says.

“Trauma is a disorder of connection and power; it disconnects and isolates us from other people, strips us of a sense of control and agency and damages our basic capacity to trust,” Jones says. “Spiritual resources can be a highly significant part of helping restore people to connection, trust and power.”

Hatcher says that because spirituality infuses the three other realms therapists address with their clients—physical, emotional and social health—it is a critical way to connect and has been one of the keys to CareNet’s success over the years.

“We’ve found that the life experiences our team members bring to their work and their willingness to continue learning and growing gives us the ability to provide comfort to people of all ages and diversity,” Hatcher says.

“And though therapy has changed a lot since we began back in 1972, we believe our team is more effective than ever in meeting clients where they are, providing hope and insight that can help them to a better place.”