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).
Support their non-profit by purchasing items from our "It's Ok" Collection.
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97 comments
  • To the Charlie commenting above and any other “Charlie’s” out there that read this and take from it that it is saying “Jesus isn’t enough” you have either missed or twisted the point. It doesn’t have to be Jesus and prayers and such OR going to a counselor or therapist when struggling with mental health, emotional health or substance abuse issues. It can be both. In a similar way to how a person diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or hypertension can trust in the Lord and pray for healing if it be God’s will and go see a medical doctor that God may have gifted to help other people. God is bigger than the box we try and put Him in. As a former pastor and youth pastor (and PK) who had a serious struggle with depression as a teen who is now a licensed counselor doing individual, couple and family counseling, I am convinced that that what I do now is as much or more of a ministry than what I did before. And if you feel that Jesus alone is enough for you, you can thank the Lord for that, but don’t judge those that need the help of Christians that are counselors or doctors or even medications that God gave people the minds and wisdom to create to help people function better. While it is true that God chooses to heal some people immediately and miraculously, sometimes He uses other means and other people, and that is certainly His right as sovereign God. Let’s love and support each other and not make trying to get some help even with mental health issues something to be ashamed of.

    David Scott on
  • To Charlie (and others who wonder the same things) -
    None of this article means that Jesus is not sufficient for our needs. But please remember that through the Holy Spirit He give gifts to the Church “for the building up of the body” (1 Cor 12), and that some of these gifts include “healing.” We can honor our Lord not only through our own prayers and worship, but by graciously and gratefully accepting, appreciating, and using all the gifts He gives for our benefit – including counseling, therapy, and other healing modalities for our pastors and ourselves.

    Chris on
  • To Charlie, I think you might be missing the point. God uses medical doctors to heal people physically. Why then could He not work through therapist to heal people with their mental health. Therapists are just the tools that God created and uses for His glory! Do you go to a medical doctor when you are sick? It’s exactly the same thing!

    Melanie on
  • I had been a Christian for over 20 years when I finally sought the help of a professional counsellor. I was depressed, I never missed home and I wanted to leave God. The therapist unlocked my fears. I was able to decide without feeling guilty. Not everyone may need therapy. I needed it. The book of proverbs says “wisdom is everywhere.” Saying isn’t the Bible enough is saying wisdom is not everywhere. Today I’m still a christian and I’m much more free and clear conscious. I believe in Jesus and I believe in therapy <3

    Clare Chilombo on
  • Charlie,

    As Kristin wrote, I believe that God does often use human agents to carry out his will. Timothy Keller has a lot to say about this mode of God’s action concerning work in various sermons on YouTube and in his book “Every Good Endeavor.” He points to Martin Luther’s exposition of Psalm 136:25 (“He [God] gives food to every creature.”). Luther argues that this verse implies that God uses those who grow, prepare, and distribute food to accomplish his loving purpose of sustaining his creatures. This same synergistic mode of God’s action may be seen throughout the Old Testament in his use of the Prophets to speak and perform miracles. God could surely have accomplished the same things by direct action, but he chose to bring people along with him in an act of love. The power is still God’s, but he acts upon the situation through people. I hope this helps develop the discussion here. God bless.

    Wesley on

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