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Dear Church, Let's Talk About Mental Health


“Pastors are not meant to get therapy” vs. “Pastors really need to get therapy.”

I used to live by statement number one... probably why I ended up living statement number two.

Let me start by saying that I am still a pastor, I still believe in the absolute power of Jesus to heal the heart and I’m still a huge supporter of church counseling and ministry. But I feel compelled to raise my voice and say:

Therapy is not demonic.

Taking antidepressants is not a sin.

Seeing a psychiatrist is not anti-christian.

And those who suffer from mental health problems are not a failure.

Lord knows we need more openness in our congregations because (and this is a fact) 50% of adults will develop depression, PTSD, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or some other mental illness in their lifetime.

Half of the people reading this article already have (or currently are). And for the sake of our family, friends and church leaders, we need to break the shame. Jesus is the hope for each and every one of our needs. He’s the miracle worker who, “healed every disease and every sickness.” And when Jesus healed the leper, the demon possessed, the broken-hearted, he never blamed them for their condition. Jesus is not a religious leader who will condemn us if we seek help, Jesus is the high priest who understands our weaknesses.

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

Yes, that was Jesus talking about himself in Mark 14:34.

He knows how it feels.

 

To talk of a person’s mental illness like it was a result of a sin, curse, or demon possession is to further stigmatize, shame, and isolate those who are struggling. It is stone throwing people who need understanding and a helping hand. Yes, it is possible that sin and curses and demons are part of the issue, but we need to focus on the person. And admit that we don’t have all the tools or all the answers for the different situations that need attention.

The church is the place many turn while in crisis. We cannot keep turning away the most vulnerable among us. We have to learn how to approach and relate to their specific needs.

As Brandon Peach wrote,

“Most churches probably have the very best intentions when dealing with issues of mental illness. Like the rest of society, however, the Church may misinterpret these clinical conditions and respond to them in ways that exacerbate them—and as a result, demoralize those suffering. Christ, the Great Physician, came to heal the sick. As His body, it’s time the Church leads society in helping to do the same."

In the past the Body of Christ has had three dominating approaches when dealing with mental illness:

  • Treat it exclusively as a spiritual issue.

  • Ignore it completely.

  • Treat it exclusively as a medical issue. 

I write this article not as a pastor, or a doctor or a trained counselor... I approach this subject mostly as a past patient.
A few years ago I needed to visit a psychiatrist to talk about my depression. It was

the first time in my life where I actually felt helpless, totally unmotivated and OK with the idea of suicide. Being able to talk to a professional who could specifically diagnose me and recommend treatment was liberating. Actually, in that moment it was the Godliest thing I could do.

However, I also needed friends who listened. I needed my leaders to pray. I needed God’s word and encouragement. And in certain moments, I just needed to ignore it all and focus on the things I love to do.

There are too many families in our congregations who are struggling with addictions and depression and all sorts of abusive behavior. I know that because that was our case. And in the middle of it, prayer was great... but it wasn’t enough. Sounds heretic just writing it. But it’s necessary that we talk about it.

I spent 8 months with a professional counselor who taught me how to manage my anger, improve my moods and take ownership of my situation. He gave me books to read, coached me with technics for relaxation and he saw Catherine and I together for marriage guidance. He used specific evidenced-based treatments to treat my conditions and used cognitive behavioral therapy (stuff I would have never considered before) because after many years in full time ministry and after 10 years of terrible behavior as a husband, I needed professional help.

I used to be so ashamed to share it. Now, I celebrate where God has taken me individually and where God has taken us a couple. And I am so glad I didn’t just go for ministry, or a one-time repentance fix, but actually invested money and time with a health care professional.

It was not perfect. A few times I considered punching my therapist (Hi Dolan! Love you bro). But after months of weekly sessions, I am absolutely convinced that God took me there.

I have heard stories of people getting healed in one moment. It’s happened in my own life in other circumstances; and I pray that for us all. But the reality for most is that the hurts and rejection of the past, combined with actual illness of the mind, require more time, more care and more attention. It starts with us pastors getting help when necessary. It continues with the church as a whole empowering people to do whatever it’s necessary to be made well. It demands open conversations with those who have overcome, and with those who are still struggling.

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.” Thomas Merton

It ends with us caring more about people (and their health) than about our limited opinions and hindering theology. The religious mindset wants to control how people heal. It wants to determine the rules of engagement for all scenarios and situations. But spiritual maturity is demonstrated by the increase in realization of the help and grace you need. And the heart of Christ is to heal the brokenhearted.

Maybe you’re the broken-hearted in this scenario, can I encourage to ask for help?

And if it takes visiting an actual doctor to help you with your situation, then I know for a fact that Jesus will be holding your hand the whole way through. He did it for me.

Because Jesus is the hope for everyone struggling with mental illness. And the hope for the church that’s ignoring it.

Might be a good time to stop pretending and start attending to this real need. For my sake.

And yours.

* We can all help prevent suicide. This lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255

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Carlos A. Rodríguez is a pastor, an activist, and a communicator. He's the CEO of The Happy NPO and the author of Simply Sonship, Drop The Stones and the upcoming Proximity. Together with his wife Catherine, they have three gorgeous children and have moved to Puerto Rico to continue relief efforts all over the Caribbean (post hurricane Irma and Maria).
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79 comments


  • Mesobulos Jones

    Being a fundamentalist is okay as long as your fundamentals are healthy. As long as you keep relying on the Sheepherder’s Guide to the Universe for instruction in our evolved world then you will end up causing more problems than being a solution. Evil and hate are real qualities that Xtians show in great abundance thanks be to Bugs Bunny that I don’t believe in any of that crap anymore.


  • Colette

    Thank you for this article. We experienced a mental health crisis this past year when our special needs son (deaf, cognitive-delayed) suddenly experienced a couple of manic episodes following a surgery and was diagnosed as bi-polar. Our family has a strong faith that we live out daily but these episodes and trying to get help in the VERY broken mental healthcare system was devastatingly difficult. My husband and I each lost a parent at a young age to cancer and we both said this was as hard or harder. I suffered with some PTSD-like symptoms following his episodes and experienced anxiety and insomnia which I had never experienced before. It also became one of my sweetest and closest seasons with my Savior as I leaned into His loving arms. My husband and I also grew closer than ever before as we held each other up. What makes it so hard is the stigma and the apathy of some. Our church family surrounded us with support and help but we did experience some loved ones treating us different once the words “bi-polar” were uttered. This diagnosis was hard because when someone gets a cancer diagnosis people rally around them in support but society and especially some in the church don’t do that for mental health diagnosis. I didn’t have patience to read all the comments but to those who say it should be Jesus alone….I assume you don’t see a medical doctor? These are merely problems with the body’s most complex organ- the brain and we need to support those struggling, encouraging them with the Word and prayer but also helping them access treatments that will help improve their condition. Now that we are on the healing side of the crisis, I’ve been wondering how we, the church, can help others and help fix the broken mental health care system. It’s really, really bad. For instance, we live near state of the art medical facilities but there is no mental hospital that could accommodate our son for a needed inpatient stay because of his medical needs. There is no overlap in the medical and mental healthcare systems. And then we had to wait months on waiting lists for outpatient care. First receiving sub-par care through the county mental health until 6 months later we were finally able to be seen at the local university program. People are suffering. Are we going to show them the love and compassion of Christ or judge them like a pharisee?


  • Dani

    Thank you Pastor. As a mental health clinician and a Christian i have seen and heard from Christians the struggles of deciding to seek professional help. I have been on the receiving end of the church telling me to pray more just have FAITH and yes it is helpful and at the same time prevented me to seek help. You are a GOD send to the Christian community in sharing your story. I am glad that you chose to seek professional help and that your life is better and your marriage is better. MAY God continue to use your voice in this area of discussion wherever you go. I pray that all Christian rehab programs hear your message as well.


  • Kathy

    N.O.N.A.,
    In the military, our chaplains are required to also obtain Master’s in Counseling before they can be commissioned as Chaplain officers. They have been the saving grace, pardon the pun, for so many soldiers and their family members. My husband did need a psychiatrist after a major, potentially fatal medical diagnosis and surgery through him into major clinical depression. Our unit chaplain told him that his issues were beyond his training. I’m grateful that the chaplain did tell him to get psychiatric help, but that chaplain could have given him some, even any, spiritual counseling as well. But I have met Christians and pastors in the civilian sector who told depressed people that they just needed to open their Bible, read more, pray more, just have more faith.
    I was in a women’s meeting just last week and one of the ladies was trying so hard not to cry. She is going through so much right now, has for years with her family and husband. It had been so bad this last year that she has comptemplated suicide
    Then she mentioned she has suffered with this depression for 40 years!!! I was speechless that these ladies have known all she has gone through, and that she had suffered so long. She mentioned going to a counselor, but that it’s not helping. I barely know this lady, only been in this group a few months and alarms we’re going off in my head “CLINICAL DEPRESSION”. Not one lady in that group said one peep about her needing to look into medication after all this time of suffering 🙄😢


  • Marilyn Gilliam

    Very timely much needed messages. I appreciate the pastor sharing his experience to enlighten others and encourage faith communities to minister to the whole person, mentally physically & spiritually.


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