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Student-Faculty Team Researches Mindfulness in Couples Therapy

Karen Quek and Sara Smith S’19 presented findings at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy—California Division (AAMFT-CA) annual conference in San Diego.

“I wasn’t in my fitted place.” That’s the way Sara Smith S’19 describes her career before she enrolled in the Master of Arts in Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) program at Bethel Seminary San Diego. She began evening seminary classes—while still working full time—in hopes of finding a career path that more closely reflected her faith and love for people.

In her Research Design course—which is taught by MFT Program Director Karen Quek, Ph.D., and foundational to both the Marital and Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling programs—Smith was asked to develop a group research project proposal. She developed a literature review, framework, and methodology for studying how mindfulness—including breathing exercises and meditative practices designed to calm and focus the mind—could be used as intervention in couples’ therapy.

“Mindfulness is a proven, evidence-based practice within psychological treatment of individuals. But the research on using it with couples was very fragmented,” Smith says. “When you use mindfulness practices in relationship-enhancing experiences, couples bond, understand one another more fully, and learn to better attend to each other’s needs.” As a tactic in later-term couples’ therapy—after a couple has worked through an issue or tension—its effects were promising, though Smith says there has been some resistance to the idea in Christian circles because mindfulness is based in a Buddhist philosophy. She overcame some personal biases of her own to eventually see an opportunity to infuse the Christian worldview into the practice in order to help couples speak a common language and learn to calm themselves in order to better connect with God and each other.

“At first, I was very closed-minded about mindfulness practices,” Smith says, “but I’ve realized that in order to truly expand the Kingdom of God, we have to look outside the box—it’ll absolutely guide us to a better understanding of others. Mindfulness is a tool God has given me to deal with anxiety and stress in my own life. It’s not a replacement for prayer or devotional time, but a way to quiet my mind in order to be able to hear Him.”

Quek was intrigued by the topic and urged Smith to fine-tune the work and share her findings at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy—California Division (AAMFT-CA) annual conference in March. It was an opportunity for Smith to showcase and discuss cutting-edge work and for Bethel to establish itself more solidly within the growing marital and family therapy profession, which U.S. News & World Report recently ranked second in its list of best social services jobs.

“As an educator, I’m passionate about my students’ professional development. I strongly encourage students to participate in conferences whenever possible,” Quek says. The MFT program provides academic, clinical, and professional training for graduates to be competent clinicians in a real-world setting, informed both by Christian values and solid systemic orientation. Students explore their pasts and what they bring into client relationships, and they also complete 500 hours of face-to-face client contacts within a 12-month clinical practicum. At least 100 hours are supervised by licensed therapists, so students gain immediate feedback on their clinical skills and approaches. This hands-on training—plus research and presentation opportunities like Smith’s—are all aimed at helping students serve clients as effectively as possible.

“To promote student enthusiasm for learning is important for me—I hope that they will gain clinical skills and grow as people, all within the context of a Christian community,” says Quek. “I really make it a point to get to know my students individually. It is very rewarding helping them to work from a place of knowledge and put their learning immediately into practice—to see them take theory and put it to work within a diverse range of clinical settings."

Find out more about the Master of Arts (M.A.) in Marital and Family Therapy at Bethel Seminary San Diego or its counterpart, the Master of Arts (M.A.) in Marriage and Family Therapy from Bethel Seminary St. Paul.

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