When it comes to mental health difficulties and support from the church, the Mental Health Grace Alliance has heard it all! Let’s look at the three major frustrations we face and three positive solutions as we work toward sincerely supporting those struggling with mental wellness.
1) Spiritual Stigma
Unfortunately, pastoral staff members grow frustrated when they don’t understand why their ministry methods are not working. In response to their lack of success, they unknowingly go into “religious default” mode, which places the blame on the person being counseled rather than the pastor or ministry. As did Job’s friends, pastors assume that the counselee’s hardship or problem is due to the individual’s sin, weak faith, or demonic oppression. When this becomes the mind-set of the pastoral staff member, the church often backs away from offering help to the individual in need.
When one pastor didn’t see his counselee’s mood disorder go away, he said, “It’s because the sin issues of his youth are finally catching up with him . . . he just needs to will himself to make better choices.”
2) Spiritual Fixes or Miracles
Often pastoral support staff will prescribe to people biblical counseling and intense discipleship to overcome a mental health issue. Some pastors will even insist on “deliverance” ministry or an intensive inner-healing ministry designed to produce immediate breakthroughs. The idea is to have the individual participate in intensive Bible study, prayer, and ministry so he or she might receive an immediate resolution to a problem. It forces the individual being counseled to pray harder or believe more in order to get results.
While we believe God can do the impossible, for many this method doesn’t work and, in fact, can make things worse. I helped one person with a debilitating anxiety disorder move away from a popular devotional that implied that working hard to “overcome” will fix problems and produce positive results. The devotional warned, “If you fret, you deserve what you get.”
3) Spiritual Steps
It’s common to think that mental health can be accomplished by a series of ministry “steps.” This step-by-step counseling approach to health can address many emotional issues, but it can also cause someone dealing with intense symptoms of mental illness to experience more confusion, coupled with self-doubt. Many people being counseled are left feeling they have failed the church and God. I’ve heard this from numerous counselees: “I’m so frustrated with my church and God. I’m thinking of completely giving up on both.”
Why These Methods Don’t Work
Although these pastoral approaches may be well intentioned and offered in love, they demonstrate a lack of understanding of mental health. Mental health difficulties are physiological dysfunctions of the brain, affecting thoughts, moods, and behavior. These types of disorders are more difficult to recognize than physical health issues such as diabetes, cancer, or the common cold.
Difficult symptoms intensify negative thoughts and moods. The brain is not stable enough to accurately process thoughts and emotions. Often, many people receiving counseling experience symptoms such as anhedonia—an inability to feel or express pleasure or emotions, leading to depressive moods and thoughts. Other symptoms include racing thoughts and impulsive behaviors (even destructive behaviors). All of these are uncontrollable and not easily “fixed” by most pastoral methods. By pressing these ministry methods listed above, the individual receiving counseling experiences more disruptive emotions and confusion.
We need to re:THINK church support. The pastoral and community focus ought to emphasize relieving suffering and revealing Christ.
1) Steps vs. Process
Mental health recovery is not linear; it is a process. The process starts with stability, which means transitioning from crawling through life to standing up. The second part of the process is function—visualizing taking life from a slow walk and moving toward a light jog. Lastly, the process involves purpose, when the individual has learned all about his or her condition, what works and what doesn’t, and how to manage life, so that he or she may avoid pitfalls. We’ve seen many come from destruction and develop a purposeful, successful life.
2) Recovery vs. Treatment
Treatment focuses solely on medication and therapy. These are two important elements to achieving mental health, and it’s vital to find the right professionals to oversee these elements. Recovery, however, is distinct because it involves not only finding the right professionals but also looking holistically at the individual’s life needs—physical, mental, spiritual, and relational. (Here is a link to our three, free resources that have proven to provide a strong outline for leading others towards mental wellness: http://mentalhealthgracealliance.org/resources-1)
3) Rest vs. Work
Rather than finding fault and prescribing lots of work, we ought to lead struggling individuals to rest. It is through rest that we find comfort and strength. A pastor should focus on validating an individual’s condition and take the approach that affirms his or her identity and recognizes a couple of key characteristics of God’s comfort and compassion: When we suffer, God doesn’t say, “Work harder and try to find Me, and if you do enough I will come to you.” Jesus came to us and said, “Come to me; I will give you rest for your soul” all the while reaffirming us with His gentleness (Matthew 11:28–30).
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Let Me Hear from You
I interviewed Joe about how the Mental Health Grace Alliance came together. Joe shared openly about his family struggles and their need for hope and help. They tried it all, heard it all, and nothing worked. I urge you to hear his story because it’s where you may be today. Perhaps you are weary because nothing has worked. Perhaps you have endured the negative stigma of mental illness and don’t know where to turn.
I desire to offer you words of hope, because mental wellness is possible. My family members have mental struggles; we have been hurt, but we’ve also found hope. I would love to hear from you and share in this journey with you!
Finally, I strongly encourage you to watch or listen to my interview with Joe.
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