For those of us who have a Christian world view, we may experience some level of stigma related to seeking help for our mental health concerns in the secular medical community. A simple Google search brings up numerous articles on this subject – including this summation of the problem:
“According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5 percent—experiences mental illness in a given year. Many of these individuals turn to their church and their faith for spiritual guidance in times of emotional distress. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness in many Christian churches. The prevailing culture of silence along with misguided attitudes and erroneous expectations often cause suffering believers to feel shamed, blamed and very unsupported.
That means a lot of good, Christ-centered people suffer alone in silence. Recent statistics from NAMI also show:
- Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4 percent—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
- 18.1 percent of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.”
[Geneva College, 2018] https://www.geneva.edu/blog/uncategorized/stigma-mental-illness
I’ve been a Bible believing Christian for the past 30 years. I’m also a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma work. For most of that time I have worked in a large children’s mental and behavioral health organization that is not specifically faith-based, in direct client care and as part of a Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), helping individuals deal with their reaction to traumatic events.
In the 25 years of my professional life I never have had to violate the fundamental beliefs of my faith.
It’s important to let that whole statement sink in for a moment. You may want to read it again, especially if you are a Christian yourself. If I had a dollar for every time a Christian friend asked me about or commented on how difficult it must be for me to work in a “secular” mental health setting as a Bible-believing Christian, I’d be a wealthy woman by now.
But it’s true – I don’t have to violate my faith to work in secular mental health, and it’s an absolute myth that I would have to do so. There is a rarely spoken belief in the Christian community that secular mental health treatment is in some way bad for you, or going to hurt you, or lead you a astray from the Truth. Even though many Christians may believe this, but it’s not necessarily true.
Here is what I tell those who ask: Secular mental health treatment is not designed to ignore or tear down the beliefs or worldview of the Christian. Instead, our goal in the mental health field is to join with you and understand what is most important to you and make those things part of your strengths as you begin to heal. Despite the effect of stigma built up over generations, it is okay for a Christian to seek help for mental health concerns. Congregations and pastors in the modern Christian churches are starting to better understand that mental health issues exist, that the church needs to be equipped to aid those struggling with such issues, and that the church must encourage and support people who decide to reach outside the church for help.
Let’s examine an example of how things used to be versus how things are starting to be now as it gets better. (A little disclaimer here – not all churches are the same; yours may be further along, or not as far along, in this particular continuum.)
In this first example a girl has suffered in a difficult dating relationship. She was told all her life not to enter into a sexual relationship until marriage; however the boy she was seeing really pushed her to do it. She was uncomfortable and would have liked to say no, but agreed. He was rough with her. After the encounter she felt guilty all the time. She told her mother, who was horrified and told her father. The girl began periodically cutting her wrist with superficial cuts. The family addressed these problems by telling her she was feeling guilty because God was punishing for her “falling” into a sexually immoral relationship. They told her she should not be cutting her wrists because her body is a temple and she is destroying her temple. They forced a visit with the pastor which confirmed these ideas. All of this only made the girl feel worse. She started cutting herself on other areas of her body and looking for new relationships with boys.
In the second example the same girl is in the same circumstances but the parents react differently. They sit down with her and ask enough questions to find out that she was really forced into a sexual relationship and is now dealing with feelings of violation. She is comforted by her parents and they consider how they may find treatment for her (Christian or otherwise) that can help her through the traumatic experience. They do consult the pastor but they lead with the fact that she’s been violated – not all the “bad” things she’s doing. He then helps them look into options for her to find the right treatment for her.
A Christian who needs mental health treatment has choices:
- Treatment via the secular world of mental and behavioral health that can be accessed through insurance. There are many types of counselors, coaches and therapists that can be accessed through this vast system of care.
- Counselors designed for the Christian community. These individuals provide support to people seeking help from the perspective of the Christian worldview. (Many times these counselors also take insurance; it just depends on the situation.)
- Biblical counselors who specifically base their counseling on biblical principles and look to guide the Christian back to the biblical principles in a loving way. Some of these counselors are private pay and some provide this service as a free ministry.
- A Spiritual Director is someone who guides people as they take a journey to become closer to the divine. A spiritual director is normally connected to a Catholic Church or other type of a liturgical church and has completed extensive courses and certification.
This list is not exhaustive, but it illustrates that a member of a Christian community does not have to suffer in silence without any help.
In addition to my professional work in mental and behavioral healthcare, I also offer assistance as a free ministry in my church. It brings me great joy when people come forward out of silence in my church and say they need help and I’m able to help them. In some cases I have recommended that people seek further help in the secular mental and behavioral health system – and they did, much to their benefit. There are several I was able to counsel towards using medications that a year ago they never would have considered medications they truly needed. This work truly brings me joy because I feel like I’m working with my pastors to bring mental illness in our church out of the shadows and into the light where we can see it, talk about it and really handle it in a loving way.
One day may there be no more stigma, and no more silence for Christians or ANYONE seeking help when one is depressed or anxious or anything else.