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
  • Thank you for writing this. I was told by a pastor, “if you were saved you would not have depression”. In return I asked him, “what are you do wearing those eye glasses, if you were saved you should be able to remove them and drive home without them”. His statement has made me question my salvation more than once. I know I am saved but I have depression. I had an awful childhood and I have a lot of
    PTSD from that. I do see a therapist on a regular basis. I have tried to talk to family members but they just don’t want to hear about it. But many people thinks that is so bad. I need your prayers.

    Tammy on
  • Thank you for writing this article. I applaud you; I’m a psychiatrist and daughter of a pastor who served for over fifty years.

    Cassandra Wanzo MD on
  • While many people’s depression often comes from a simple response to their life circumstances where they allowed to spiral out of control and get deeper and deeper in and find a very difficult way getting out it is also scientifically true despite judgmental people’s opinions who have never experienced true suffering that true mental illness exist due to people’s genetics and body chemistry the body is a complex thing when not functioning properly affect the workings of the Mind. There are many people who cannot methylate properly the suffering from such a severe deprivation of methyl folate and b 12 thqt it causes psychiatric symptoms there are too many processes to mention them all Oliver one that most Christians would be familiar with would be postpartum depression historically and is true today there are still many seemingly normal well-functioning loving mothers and members of churches that run Ministries and raised beautiful families that are suddenly plummeted into psychotic experiences after the birth of their children if you understand at the genetics most of these women have a copper imbalance and when the hormones shift radically after birth that causes a further disruption in the balance causing the copper to induce psychosis in some situations and certainly severe clinical depression in others to the point where the woman becomes incapacitated and unable to care for her own baby that she spent nine months dreaming about. She didn’t get lazy wish your baby look different or get upset about how heavy she was after the birth her body and mind have become victims of a rapid transformation that’s flooding her whole system and taking over her brain function. It isn’t sin well we are encouraged to admonished our brothers and sisters who have fallen into sin we’re told to do it in love that doesn’t mean a quick Facebook social media I feel like having an opinion judgement it means it’s the holy spirit is convicting you strongly because you’ve watched your brother or sister struggle with sin for a time and you feel the urge to go to them that should be followed with much prayer and preparation and then when necessary delivered with the utmost humility in love , with the goal and purpose of restoring that one knowing that we should be careful lest we also fall. Very few people are able to actually discern true mental illness from sin in a responsible manner which means that most people should just be quiet or offer some loving assistance unless the person is openly sinning against you your family are you know of some harm they’re doing to others it would be best not to drive them away by ignorant judgments reach out in compassion and you may just learn something

    Laura on
  • Where has this been, why isn’t counseling MANDATED for everyone involved in the field of helping professions. Over our great nations history, could have probably saved a few million lives by now…..so needed in our society….

    N.O.N.A on
  • Amen!! Thank you for writing this and for your vulnerability…I can relate and know that Jesus has helped me through the help of a therapist and sometimes I think it would be wise to go back for a “refresher” when my anxiety levels start to rise. ❤️God bless you and God bless all the work that you do!

    RobinK on

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