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
  • Charlie, Jesus is always enough. At the same time, God has graciously let mankind discover things like antibiotics to help us fight disease, surgery and physical therapy to help our bodies heal faster. If the neurons in our brains are misfiring, causing mental turmoil, or if neural pathways have been formed that are causing us to respond in ways we don’t understand, why is it any more unspiritual to get help from professionals who have studied the brain and its responses, than it is to get help from a primary care doctor? I do believe that Christians should avoid professionals who are purely secular and don’t address the spiritual aspect of mental problems by encouraging the patient to focus on God throughout the hard times. But to reject professional help for mental issues simply because we want God to fix them supernaturally doesn’t line up with the common sense approach we take to other medical issues. A therapist once asked me, “If you wouldn’t think twice about buying glasses for your child if he had a vision problem, why would you hesitate to get counselling for him if he has an emotional problem? He didn’t choose either problem, but help is available to relieve both.”

    Ruth on
  • I want to say something in response to Charlie! I totally get where you’re coming from in asking if the author claimed Jesus is not enough. In my opinion, everything that God is and consists of is more than enough. He says his grace is sufficient and I believe that. HOWEVER, God is also more than capable of telling the world who He is with divine intervention, yet in Isaiah 52:7 we read about how beautiful are the feet that bring good news. I think the reality is that he uses us as tools, which also teaches us community with other believers and more about being a comfort to those in need of support. I believe that He made everyone fearfully and wonderfully. In that process I believe he made skilled counselors, social workers, therapists, etc. to better be a part of his work. I believe that YES, God’s Grace is indeed more than enough, but I don’t think we always get the picture of what his grace includes. Sometimes it’s simply his existence and goodness and other times part of that grace is therapeutic and medical expertise. I don’t know the answers whatsoever but that was just something that crossed my mind when I read your post!

    Allie on
  • This message came at such an important time for me as I was recently diagnosed with several mental health conditions. I saw the comments made by Charlie and I can appreciate his thought process, but I don’t think the post was about saying that GOD isn’t enough but more about supporting GOD’s plan for us through our spiritual gifts and his plan for fellowship. GOD blessed us all with our unique set of gifts to be able to praise him and mentor others. Thise who have been blessed with the ability and the gift of therapeutic intervention are fulfilling their roles through this Avenue. I think this is just another example of his infinite wisdom towards getting us to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ who need each other. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your journey. You will likely impact so many people who have struggled with these same issues. God bless.

    Stephani on
  • @Charlie: Do you wear eyeglasses? Take antibiotics? How do you feel about chemotherapy for cancer patients? Or diabetics taking insulin? Because Jesus is perfectly able to heal eyesight, infections, cancer and diabetes. In fact, I’m pretty sure that He has before. But He typically works through means…like medicine. And the fact that medications work at all is evidence that they are His provision.

    Leslie on
  • Thank you for writing this Carlos. It’s been a question I’ve had for the past few years as I’ve stopped believing in Jesus. Having been lonely and depressed gave me reason to start exploring help outside of church, and be open to learning how to live a fulfilling life on Earth – as a non-Christian, to be blunt.

    I still have pretty deep mental and emotional problems, but my experiences growing up in church haven’t convinced me that Jesus is the way to go – for my life at least. May my cold heart still be open to considering different perspectives, even ones that have to do with relying on God.

    Alan on

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