This particular article about mental health and the church is one that is close to my heart.
That’s because I have worked in the mental health and therapy areas now for close to 25 years. I am also a Church goer. My faith is important to me and is central to who I am and what I do. But many times over the years I have observed a very disturbing thing:
Sometimes the Church can have a toxic response to people struggling with mental health issues.
You see, I am somewhat of a ‘hybrid’; that is, a believer whose faith is important, but who as a therapist has seen first-hand the despair and struggles that mental health difficulties cause. And that is where the problem lies for me.
I am proud to be a Christian, but sometimes not so proud to be a member of the Church.
Why would I say such a thing? (I can hear the rocks being picked up to throw at me!)
Because it seems to me that on the whole, the Church is far removed from the daily grind and pressures of life. When this is coupled with the simplistic, shallow answers that are given to people for complex, painful issues, the result is depressed, disillusioned Church goers.
What simplistic shallow answers am I referring to? Here’s just a sample of responses I have heard with regards to serious anxiety, depression, trauma or relationship difficulties:
- Just press into God.
- Claim your freedom; it’s your spiritual birthright.
- Has there been sin in your life recently?
- Do you have a problem with submission to the Pastor?
- Do you have a problem with submission to your husband?
- When was the last time you prayed and read your Bible?
- Just declare your authority and demand the enemy leave.
- Blah, blah blah…
I know I am treading on some toes here, but it has now gotten to the point where I am seeing Christian folk in my private practice because they feel there is no-one in their local Church they can turn to.
I know of other Christians who travel long distances to see a non-Christian therapist (which I am perfectly fine with, by the way!) because they feel they would be judged by their Pastor, Minister or congregation.
Now I don’t expect the local Church to be staffed by a team of therapists (how good that would be). But I do expect that basic compassion and common sense prevail.
This issue is large and complex, but I just want to highlight two common blind spots in the Church that really do contribute to this sad affair.
- A strong spiritual focus that neglects the rest of our God-given make up. Humans are a spiritual, physical and psychological composite. That means that God is perfectly interested in every aspect of us. For example, it’s no use to passively ask God to heal you of your obesity, when you continue to make poor lifestyle choices about your health. It also means that by only offering a spiritual lens to complex physical or emotional issues, you will miss the mark and simply breed despair. This brings me to my next point.
- A judgemental attitude that uses shame to motivate people. Over the last 30 years of hearing sermons, three key themes emerge in most of them:
- God is Holy
- You are not
- Try harder*
The overall message is that you must do more; more love, more faith, more giving, more evangelism etc.
The result? A group of people who are emotionally (and physically) tired, and feel that they just can’t measure up. When you stir in some struggles with mental health, the repercussions can be serious.
Years ago, a Christian book was written called, “Why do Christians shoot their wounded?” I love that title, as it captures exactly what happens. Because there is a strong performance-based mindset in many Churches, the Christian faith morphs into a simplistic and narrow view that focuses on behaviour and externals (rigid Sunday Church attendance is a classic example).
This creates a worldview that misses the context of hurting people. They neither understand the internal struggle nor the unique personal history of the person. They callously judge on what they see with their eyes, and subsequently give harsh, unloving answers to life’s challenges.
In other words, they shoot the wounded.
Where does this leave us? I want to outline 4 short points for those Christians who have taken a hit both from mental health difficulties and the Church’s response.
- Don’t fall for the shame messages that some will give you. Shame isolates people and can be a tool to manipulate. If your Church regularly uses shame in such a way, find another Church. As I have written before, sometimes the use of shame extends into spiritual abuse.
- Despite the Church getting it wrong sometimes, don’t blame God. Just because I have a bad day at work, doesn’t mean I can now go home and kick the dog. Try not to kick God for what the Church has done or hasn’t done.
- Cultivate a relationship with God separate to the Church. I need to explain this one. It doesn’t mean never step inside a Church again, or never fellowship with other Christians. It just means that the Church is Christ’s responsibility, not ours, and He will deal with it. In the meanwhile, remember that God is bigger than the Church (and its mistakes).
- Not all Churches or Christians are the same. There are Churches who are more sensitive to folk with mental illness, trauma, and relationship breakdown. Do your homework and make some inquiries. As I say to my Christian clients, “meet God halfway” in your journey toward healing. It’s always a partnership.
Finally, I want to say that I have helped many people from many different faiths and am comfortable talking about faith issues with any individual. My experience has been that the underlying or core issues remain the same regardless of the Faith. Feel free to contact me, and together we can meet God halfway towards something better.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
*I first heard this expression from the magnificent Frank Viola. See www.frankviola.org