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
  • Like one person stated, I, too, am getting the message that “Jesus isn’t enough”, and although I DO believe in medication, I also believe that if you choose NOT to use a therapist, that if you “Pray without ceasing”, and rely on the bible, it CAN be all one needs. But, there were physicians in the bible, so they are needed, at times.
    But I would NOT go to an unsaved therapist – not these days. I have, many years ago, but times have changed, in these “if it feels good, do it” times.

    Lynda S. Allaby on
  • Charlie, I am a Christian. Have you been to war? Do you know what it’s like to have PTSD? There is a reason God gave us doctors.

    Johnathan Wagner on
  • A few years ago, I was in full-time ministry when my entire life fell apart (actually, I pretty much took a sledgehammer to it). I finally went to get some help from a professional and after a couple months, I was diagnosed as Bipolar 2. God was (and is) absolutely enough, but he has chosen to facilitate my healing through doctors, modern medicine, scripture, prayer, and healthy relationships. It is easy for someone to look at my life and say I did not allow God to heal me, that I looked to outside resources for healing, but the truth is that God led me there. And He is such a good God, He allowed me to partner with Him in my own journey to healing. There definitely have been moments of instantaneous, divine healing, but He has sustained that healing in me through community – both with doctors and spiritual family. Thank you for your transparency and bravery in sharing your story and showing us how modern medicine still points to Jesus.

    Lyndsay on
  • Dear Charlie, Yes Jesus IS enough. It’s just that sometimes He choose different ways to heal us.
    He put doctors and other professionals here for a reason and we wouldn’t need them here if He didn’t want us to use them. It would be totally absurd to not let Him help us through them. This has nothing to do with Him not being enough.

    Barbara Quirouet on
  • I have struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. Was eventually diagnosed at the age of 30 with bipolar type 2 disorder and have since been diagnosed with PTSD due to early childhood trauma. I accepted Jesus as my Savior when I was only 7 years old and I absolutely agree with your statements that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, show others who are dealing with the same types of struggles, how to approach getting help and that it is OK! I don’t remember where this story came from but I once heard this and I think this is the perfect situation to apply this!

    There once was a man who was deeply devoted to Jesus. Unfortunately there was a flood warning where he lived and everyone was advised to evacuate. The first attempt to get him to leave the area after the water started to rise was some good people in a boat. They pleaded with him to go with them, but he insisted that “my God will save me! I trust in Him and He will keep me safe so I will not leave.” The water continued to rise and he ended up on the roof of his house. The second attempt to rescue him was by helicopter. Again- he insisted his God would save him. Well, he ended up drowning. When he got to heaven, he asked God: “Why didn’t you save me?! I put all my trust and faith in you and you let me die!” God responded “my child- I sent a boat AND helicopter to help save you and you rejected both. I DID try to save you!”

    Moral of the story: sometimes God uses other people to rescue us or deliver us from either ourselves or others. He uses healthcare professionals to heal the sick and broken, and this includes people with mental illness. Mental illness is the same as cancer: nobody chooses to have mental illness any more than somebody chooses to get cancer. We HAVE to remove the stigma of mental illness and the thought by many, that mental illness is a result of something we did or chose. As children of Christ, we need to accept people without judgement and lift them up, not tear them down! Telling someone that their illness is their fault is the first step in making it even more difficult to get help!

    My fellow followers of Jesus: STOP! It is not our place to judge, point fingers, or throw stones. How about placing that thought and energy into helping others! We are called to be a light shining for Him, to be apostles, to guide or plant a seed to everyone possible to help lead others to the cross and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. I’m also a work in progress. I don’t say all this because I am perfect in carrying out the will of God. I have ignored that voice in my head telling me that someone I just saw or know needs my help because it would inconvenience me. I have done the wrong thing, said the wrong things, everything! But I will never stop working on this every day- myself (to be better than I was yesterday) and to be more available and willing to sacrifice my own “comfort” in order to help others find the same Jesus that saved my life!!

    Kristin on

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