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Pharaon Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG) is a consulting company that provides a range of psychological, coaching, and counseling services to individuals, couples, and groups. Founded in 1997 by counseling psychologist Dr. Nora Alarifi Pharaon, PCG is a US-based company with global outreach and focuses on these core offerings:

  • * Consulting
  • * Psychotherapy
  • * Testing and Evaluation
  • * Coaching
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An Integrated Health and Wellness Program for Muslim Religious Leaders

Nora Alarifi Pharaon, Ed.D.
Pharaon Consulting Group, Inc.

Caring for Humanitarian Workers and Peacekeepers: How Can Psychologists Help
APA Annual Convention, Hawaii
August 2004

An Integrated Health and Wellness Program for Muslim Religious Leaders

Background History

In the aftermath of a number of disasters in the early 1990s, the importance of addressing the psychological needs of victims was amply demonstrated. However, a series of conflict situations expressed in the form of stress and psychological problems brought to light the need to bring to the providers of these services specialized psychological debriefings. Although crises, suffering and stressful life situations are inherent to this type of profession, it is important to provide the humanitarian workers with coping skills and needed psychological support to avoid burnout.

Studies that have been conducted in the aftermath of natural and human catastrophes have given evidence to the fact that many caregivers, most specifically clergy, leave their communities following a disaster or leave their calling for other careers, due in large part to compassion fatigue. Specifically, statistical information collected following the Oklahoma City terrorist attack found that over 60% of the local clergy left the vicinity within five years and almost 30% left their vocation. According to the Director of Research at the Alban Institute, an even larger percentage of clergy left Littleton Colorado within three years following the Columbine High School massacre. Research also indicates that eight out of ten clergy develop and struggle with excessive stress due to the felt/perceived demands of their profession. There is increasing speculation made by religious officials of all faiths, and their communities that the clergy are an “endangered species.”

This presentation will discuss the social and psychological stressors that the caregivers undergo in times of crisis. It will delineate the challenges that the clergy and more specifically Muslim clergy have to deal with when responding to their constituencies following man made or natural disasters. It will also highlight the critical importance of a specific psychological support program, The Circle of Life, for the intended beneficiaries and their community at large.

Religious leaders are suffering from low morale, low status and low respect. This condition often is manifested in a number of negative behavioral problems as well as mental health states, such as depression and anxiety. The contributing stressors are many. Research studies conducted by well known institutes for clergy care and wellness have documented the following realities as among the most significant challenges facing spiritual leaders today:

  • The demand for comprehensive leadership skills that include competency for effective response in situations of crises.
  • The seemingly ever increasing and persistent secularization of our culture that compromises the integrity of religious institutions and religious leaders resulting in decreased status, respect and power of clergy.
  • Unrealistic expectations of religious leaders brought about by both the leader and the people they serve and exacerbated by poor personal and professional boundaries.
  • Inadequate support systems, compensation and working conditions. These support systems include the need for intentional and on-going faith-based counseling to offer clergy a safe space to process thoughts and validate feelings to help them handle the demands of their calling.
  • Individuals poorly equipped and/or matched for the challenges and stressors of their current vocational position. In the metropolitan New York area especially, clergy are often ill prepared to handle the challenges of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the communities they serve.

Today, with the ever increasing number of conflict spots around the world and an equally increasing demand for relief workers to help traumatized populations, the need to prevent possible cumulative stress before, during and after a mission cannot be overestimated. The priority is on prevention and early diagnosis so that psychological problems and conflicts in teams, which can be painful and destructive at times, are avoided.

Helpers Also Need Help: Taking Care of Oneself is Professional

Rescue and relief workers are at high risk for adverse emotional responses and a high priority for intervention. Their needs are often ignored, since their training and willingness to work makes it appear as if they have more emotional resources than the direct victims of the disaster. Clergy and more specifically Muslim Imams often assume the role of relief workers when working with their traumatized communities. They are often perceived by their parishes as the first line of defense and the providers of needed relief and support. However, they often develop adverse psychological effects and a culture of “defensive distancing” when involved in disaster response. They may deal with stress by using several defense mechanisms such as humor, superficial callousness and a

belief that getting the job right is more important than expressing their feelings. They typically do not seek out assistance and may resist being drawn into interventions since they see themselves as helpers rather than at the other end of the helping profession.

In the aftermath of September 11, members of the Muslim clergy found themselves in a very precarious position. Without prior training in pastoral counseling, they were faced with the responsibility of providing direct crisis intervention services to members of their community who faced the backlash to the atrocities of terror activities. They faced many challenges on a daily basis and were at high risk of adverse emotional effects. This was due to the following reasons:

  • They were themselves the victims of the backlash to the disaster with the same burden as the other members of their community. They were monitored closely by the government and were seen at times as a threat to the state. On the other hand, they could not evoke the law for their own protection, because the government was part of the problem. Thus, there was a loss in a belief in an orderly or just world.
  • Their professional identity depended on a self image of themselves as strong and resilient.
  • The demands of their responsibilities led to lack of sleep and chronic fatigue.
  • They faced a variety of role stresses, including a perceived inability to ever do enough even when the limits of what they can do is beyond their control. Their central role being the witness to the sufferings of others.
  • They felt guilt over having the perceived protection of their leadership role while victims of the backlash were widely exposed to threats of deportation, and detention.
  • They often over identified with their clients and shared their emotions. They had strong feelings of anger, rage, and despair, feelings of powerlessness, guilt, terror, or longing for a safe haven.
  • They were repeatedly exposed to horrific experiences of discrimination, harassment, and life threatening incidents. The result was a heightened sense of powerlessness, and preoccupation with clients’ safety and one’s own safety.

Over a one-year period, New York Disaster Recovery Interfaith (NYDRI), in cooperation with partnering organizations and agencies, established a comprehensive, integrated, health and wellness program for clergy in the New York metropolitan area. The goals of the ‘Self Care and Skill Building for the Clergy: A Unified Approach Program’ aimed at teaching religious leaders and caregivers how to identify and work with the signs of post traumatic stress disorder, depression, compassion fatigue and anxiety, to act as a catalyst for religious leaders to take responsibility for their personal development and to provide ongoing support for these individuals to promote holistic health and wellness for the benefit of their faith communities. Through its existing and potential partner organizations and agencies, this program utilizes the resources available to NYDRI to establish a variety of operating sites within faith-specific communities throughout the New York metropolitan area. At the end of its life, the program will also serve as a model for other similar programs across the nation.

The Circle of Life: A Program for the Body, Mind and Spirit

The Circle of Life program is a holistic comprehensive program for stress mastery, integrative medicine and personal effectiveness that engages each person on multiple levels-physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual. The Circle of Life supports the overall enhancement of well-being and the support of the whole person. It is based on the belief that to attempt to change a person’s symptoms and deficiencies without addressing their life-style and life skills (diet, exercise, stress mastery, relationships, etc.) is like trying to control weeds. One can repeatedly cut off the weed tops (the problems or symptoms), but they will continue to crop up until one have pulled out their roots (the cause). Those who go through the program discover what life choices and behaviors are having a draining or negative impact on their emotional and physical health and healing, and what actions and attitudes support them in attaining their health and life goals. They develop a personalized improvement plan to maximize healing and empowerment and implement it within a supportive context.

The Circle of Life is particularly profound because fifteen powerful features have been carefully woven into the process. These draw upon the great ancient traditions of empowerment to increase inner strength, manage one’s personal energy and pass knowledge and wisdom on to others. They are as follows:

  1. The Power of Electing to Improve: Although each person has a different threshold or standard for his or her personal satisfaction in life, motivation is what is needed to change or improve. It is the energy required for taking self-initiated action steps that lead to more satisfying lives in health, relationships, work or spiritual life.
  1. The Power of Self-Inquiry: It is believed that self-inquiry initiates a profound process of awareness. Getting clarity about the practical causes of a problem and then being able to identify the steps which could change the situation, greatly diminishes stress and frees up energy for healing and solution based actions. Without clarity a person can feel fearful, powerless, and without direction.
  1. The Power of Acknowledging Strengths: Focusing on one’s strengths supports one’s confidence to improve. Taking the attitude of finding what is right before fixing what is wrong supports one’s remembrance of being capable, victorious and powerful.
  1. The Power of a “Fail-Safe” System: Failures are the stepping stones to success. Failure is guaranteed and accepted as part of the gradual process of improvement. Through every failure a new lesson is learned about how to set a goal, how to curtail self judgment, and what an honest and appropriate rate of improvement is.
  1. The Power of Intention, Goals and Readiness for Change: Clarifying ones intention provides the energy, insight, and information to design a map to one’s desired destination. Targeting areas for improvement and purposefully setting goals toward their fulfillment is a simple method for bringing a sense of order to the chaos of life. Readiness for change assessment helps the individual to set intentions or goals for improvement that one is truly prepared and ready to work on, therefore reducing failures, disappointments and low self-esteem.
  1. The Power of Acknowledging the Challenges to Progress: Becoming aware of the challenges or stumbling blocks in the way of attaining intentions and goals is important. By listing the attitudes, people, situations or behaviors that create challenges to the attainment of our positive intentions, we can create strategies to overcome the challenges and clear the roadblocks.
  1. The Power of Affirmation & Accessing inner Resources: Many of the challenges to our progress are attitudes, personal behaviors and negative internal dialogue. Affirmations, or simply replacing negative self-messages with positive self-messages, eliminate this internal negativity and create significant shifts in the internal chemistry of the human body, particularly brain chemistry and immune function.
  1. The Power of Focused Action: Action steps may be broken into smaller, more attainable steps. Taking one small step in the direction of achieving a goal is a set up for success. Taking a small step successfully creates inner power and enthusiasm.
  1. The Power of Accountability: Regular accountability to a “buddy”, a mentor, a group or a team helps one complete his or her goals. The objective is to external accountability to develop a more internalized accountability to one’s self. Accountability gives us support and motivation to keep our commitments to our goals, priorities and purpose.
  1. The Power of Acceptance, Grace, Gratitude & Prayer: There are aspects of our lives that are not within our control and there are things that cannot be changed. Whether these are called destiny or karma or life’s lessons, one of the greatest sources of healing is acceptance. The other side of acceptance is the gift of grace or what some people may call a miracle. Gratitude as an attitude generates characteristic behaviors-health or disease, empowerment or powerlessness, fulfillment or dissatisfaction, success or failure. One can harness the tremendous potential of belief and the practice of prayer in healing and personal transformation.
  1. The Power of Group Process: Working within a group or team increases almost every aspect of the process of improvement. A group provides expanded resources for information, feedback, coping skills, experiences, testimonials, accountability and support. A group or team helps one to grow and improve both by supporting him/her and challenging them to stretch.
  1. The Power of Testimonial: Telling and Hearing Stories: When people share how they implement self-care practices into their lives or were able to discontinue a damaging behavior, there is an automatic inspiration. Testimonials reinforce positive action and increase faith.
  1. The Power of Life-Long Learning and Continuous Improvement: The Circle of Life process is based on steady, continuous improvement over the period of one’s entire life.
  1. The Power of the Expert-less System, the Self-Directed Group and Resident Wisdom: The Circle of Life process, particularly in the group context, brings forth what we call “resident wisdom”, the wisdom that we already have residing within. In addition, there is an abundance of knowledge, skills and information available in books, videos and on the Internet. The ultimate in the power of the expert-less system is self-directed study and support groups. The facilitator “holds the space” and helps participants follow the guidelines and agreements of their shared process.
  1. The Power of Self Reliance: The Circle of Life process assists participants in stepping out of the role of the victim and into empowered, solution-oriented action. Self-reliant individuals tend to be highly effective and productive.

Members of the Muslim Imams who complete the Self Care and Skill Building program learn to understand the difference between care and counseling, to appreciate their own limitations, as well as to build a partnership of care. In addition, religious leaders also become informed regarding the signs and symptoms of anxiety and grief responses to disaster, the differences between spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency, the practice of skilled care and the recognition of severe symptoms of anxiety and grief that require referral for professional treatment as an extension of care. It is hoped that acquiring these new skills will increase the effectiveness of Muslim Imams in providing care for members of their communities as well as facilitating more compassionate self care.


Bernardi, S. , Bonvin de Greck, K. & Meinhardt, C. (2001). Psycholgical Support Programme for Delegates, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Ehrenreich, J.H. & McQuaide, S. (2001). Coping with Disasters: A Guidebook to Psychosocial Intervention (Revised Edition). Center for Psychology and Society, State University of New York, Box 210, Old Westbury, NY 11568.

McLean, R. & Jahnke, R. (2003). The Circle of Life: Personal Health Assessment and Personal Energizing System. Pebble Beach, CA: Health Action.

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