What do we do with mental health talk?

A couple of months ago a pastor reached out to us at BetterDays asking some questions about psychotherapy in the life of the Church. It’s not the first time we’ve received an email like this. Many pastors regularly face the realities of mental health struggles among their congregation. Unfortunately, the world we find ourselves living in today is only increasing in mental health struggles. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are discussing the topic of mental health. It has become common language in our culture, especially among younger generations. 

The primary concern that sparked the email from our pastor friend was how prevalent mental and emotional health language had become among his congregation. I believe there is a legitimacy to his concern. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mental or emotional health language. We all face struggles in those areas. However, I believe the danger comes when we begin to increasingly listen to the wisdom of the world and slowly slip away from the wisdom of the Word. Our pastor friend was concerned that people in the church are beginning to view all of their struggles through the lens of mental and emotional health rather than through the lens of God’s Word. 

The fear here is that men and women in the church will seek answers for their immediate felt needs and struggles from mental health professionals and disregard the Bible’s call to, as Eugene Peterson coined it, “A long obedience in the same direction.” In other words, if my struggle is solely attached to my mental or emotional state then I miss the spiritual growth, healing, and wholeness that comes through knowing Jesus, walking with Jesus, and experiencing Jesus through a life of discipleship and patient endurance in relationship with others.

Now, I do feel I need to clarify here that I am an advocate of mental health professionals. I am an advocate of psychology and psychotherapy. I believe God has given us wisdom in the common grace of knowledge revealed through psychological research and studies of the brain. I am glad that more and more people are talking about mental and emotional health. I believe there is much grace in this growing awareness and ordinariness of these types of struggles. A survey by Mental Health America revealed that 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness and almost half of Americans (46%) will meet the criteria of a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their lifetime.

Another fact that came out in this study showed that the average delay between symptom onset and treatment in mental health conditions is 11 years. That’s longer than most other health conditions. Could you imagine experiencing a physical ailment, let’s say a sinus infection, for 11 years before finally seeking treatment? Maybe a few weeks or possibly even a few months. But 11 years? 

It’s amazing how many people struggle daily with mental and emotional conditions, but are unwilling to seek treatment. It’s never too early to seek help for these struggles. In fact, just as with physical ailments, the earlier we seek help the better. 

Back to my pastor friend. As I said earlier, I believe his concerns for the people in his care are valid. As much as there is common grace for us in the wisdom of creation, we cannot dismiss the wisdom of the Scriptures. I believe God’s word speaks directly to every part of our being; spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, and relational. As wonderful as the therapeutic process is, therapy alone without the loving fellowship of the Body of Christ, spiritual care from church leaders, and the power of the Gospel of Jesus to transform our lives leaves us empty. 

As with anything else, knowing the limitations of psychology, psychotherapy, and medication allows us to engage them in a more helpful way. What I mean is that in proper context, they can be used as gifts of grace given by God to help restore us from the brokenness of this sin stained world, but they are not the only nor ultimate answer to our pain. 

Typically during the first session or two of counseling, I remind people that neither me the counselor, nor the counseling process itself, is the answer to all their problems. It’s God’s good work in their lives that brings forth the true hope they need. That work continues to take place outside of the counseling office, especially in the context of spiritual community and pastoral care. 

Having been a pastor myself I understand the tension that comes with caring for people holistically. It’s not easy finding the balance between the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical. That’s why I believe God’s care takes place in multiple contexts and pastors don’t need to be masters of all trades. With a heart of love for people, we can familiarize ourselves with the language they’re speaking, whether that be therapeutic language, enneagram language, or a foreign language, but I don’t believe we need to master that language to disciple them. It’s ok to rely on others who have and play our particular role of discipleship and gospel care in their lives. Some church leaders may view referring people to psychiatric professionals as off-loading or avoiding the hard stuff. I’m sure it is at times, but I see it more as recognizing our own limitations and inviting others into help with the discipleship and care of someone. 

Whether it’s a physician of the body, a physician of the brain, or a physician of the soul, we are all in need of holistic care at times. We can’t excuse one for the other, nor should we discredit them if people are in need of care in those areas. At the end of the day, whether  it’s a physical, spiritual, emotional, or mental struggle, we’re all longing for a hope that does not disappoint. We desire healing that does not leave us feeling shortchanged or ashamed. 

As the world continues to turn up the volume on the langue of mental health and therapeutic process, my hope is that pastors and church leaders would not discredit those in their congregation who seek help from professionals in these areas. Rather than fighting against the culture in an attempt to turn down that volume, what if we listened to the language they were speaking? What if we paid attention to what’s under the surface of those struggles and we worked in tandem alongside mental health professionals. 

Some people will find relief from their pain and suffering through therapeutic processes. Others won’t. Regardless, church leaders can be present with them in their struggle; reminding them that the sorrows of this world pale in comparison to the eternal and enduring love of God for them in Jesus. That love, as Paul states in Romans 5, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and ultimately produces the non-disappointing hope we all long for. 

Let’s keep turning up the volume on that message as well!