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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97 comments
  • Charlie,
    I’d be willing to bet at some point in your life you went to a doctor for help with a physical problem. If you or your closest loved one was diagnosed with cancer, what would you do? I’m guessing you would likely seek the help of an oncologist. But why would you do this? Wouldn’t this mean that Jesus isn’t enough? Wouldn’t seeking the help of a medical doctor of any kind for any physical condition mean that man could do a better job than God at healing our physical health? Does seeing an oncologist mean you don’t believe God’s Word is enough to heal? Scripture is clear that we are mind, body, and spirit. How can you support seeking help for the biological part of our being (body), but criticize and judge seeking help for the psychological part of your being (mind)? Our bodies do not exist separate from our minds. Indeed, psychological health absolutely impacts our physical health. Many people simply need mental health medication. Others are on medications for issues that could be resolved if their childhood neglect and abuse and historical traumatic experiences were addressed. It breaks my heart and saddens me that so many Christians are feeling hopeless and committing suicide as a result of the false theology that seeking help means Jesus is enough. I’m sure it breaks God‘s heart, as well.

    Let’s just get honest here for a minute. What is the real core issue of Christians believing that therapeutic help is not OK? It’s simple and can be summed up in one word: FEAR. We humans are afraid of what we don’t fully understand. How do we handle things we don’t understand? We judge it. The science of neurobiology is revealing an enormous amount of information that has not been previously understood or known. Until now, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we have been afraid of it and judge it. God knows how we are created inside and out because He is our Creator. He knitted every neuron in our brain together just as He knitted every cell in our body together. Science serves man by teaching us more about what God has created so that we can be better stewards of his creation. Until we know enough to remove the fear of what we don’t understand, I know a good therapist who can help you deal with that fear.

    Jacquie on
  • I totally agree with you, Carlos-I have had treatment for depression myself, and my last husband has lovingly supported me when it has tried to rear it’s ugly head again. Charlie, Carlos isn’t saying that Jesus’ finished work isn’t enough. Look at what Jesus did-He called the Twelve to help, then He sent out Seventy people to cover more ground, and when He was in the garden praying prior to his arrest, He asked his three closest friends to come pray with Him-and He was the Son of God, so why did he need support? And finally, when the Great Physician said, paraphrased, Those who aren’t sick don’t need a doctor, He didn’t say that the sick shouldn’t go to one. I don’t find anything in the above article that implies that the Word isn’t enough-and can’t find anything in the Word that says we shouldn’t go get treatment for mental health issues. Paul said for us to bear one another’s burdens- to use what we’ve experienced to help others. Nowhere does it say to avoid medicine because all we need to do is to pray and we will miraculously be completely restored. Take it from me-I’ve been there, and God used a Hindu psychiatrist and Episcopalian therapist , and prescription medicine, to restore me over the course of three years. I came out the other side more capable of teaching my students, dealing with my first husband’s alcoholic death, and, tapering off the meds. And like He did with Carlos, Jesus held my hand the whole time-and even spiritually let me sit on His lap and cry on His shoulder. Please think about it- do we wait on the Lord to set a broken leg? No, we go to the ER doc to get help. Likewise, when we have a real illness, and mental illnesses are just as real as physical ones, we can go to a mental health doc for help-and nowhere in the Bible does it say not to. Praying for all who struggle!

    Rev. Mrs. Lee Hollingshed on
  • Good morning everyone. I noticed Charlie’s comment and hope that I can help to clarify. Even as saved Christians, we still have physical needs (food, water, etc.). Christ did finish the work concerning our spirit from a finality standpoint, but not from a daily functionality standpoint. What we do daily requires acknowledgment of God (Proverbs 3:5-6), and our success or failure each day and each instance stems from that. If you started out not knowing that you had a problem OR you started out ignoring a problem (whether because of fear or not knowing the importance of facing the problem you ignored the problem) at the point that reality kicks in and you realize there is an actual problem that needs to be addressed, one may require PHYSICAL, MENTAL, AND SPIRITUAL help at that point. What Jesus Christ gave us was spiritual. Jesus is enough (and is the ONLY “enough”) (the way, the truth, and the life) for our spirit lives, and the other aspects of our lives are positively affected by that when applied properly in balance (1Thessalonians 5:23)(Acts 17:22-28)(Isaiah 65:5). I hope that helps to clarify why I believe that the article was originally written….(balance- Proverbs 11:1, Proverbs 20:23). Have a blessed day in the Lord

    Terrance on
  • This starts with the right idea (God has help for hurting people), but then it just goes really, really wrong. When this pastor was in a crisis, his therapist gave him a lot of tools- but didn’t open God’s word! That was never part of the solution? Really? The Bible has much to say about depression and PTSD and suicidal thoughts. “Techniques” might offer temporary relief, but healing and comfort and solutions come from God. I predict a future blog post where the pastor is dealing with all the same issues. But take heart! Rather than therapy, and man’s solutions, Christ has overcome the world.

    KD on
  • I’ve been a Christian for over 48 years, believe completely in healing, had my heart healed when I was dying of heart disease, and still have bipolar disorder and diabetes….I threw in the diabetes because Christians tend to think it’s ok to have that but not mental health disorders….go figure!
    I never saw in any of the gospels where Jesus shamed or put down those He was healing….I seem to recall that kind of stuff coming from the Pharisees….
    Awesome article! Thanks for writing it!

    Jenny on

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