The mental health world can be a strange place. To be a counselor can be a beautiful, tiring, difficult, rewarding, frustrating, privileged, impactful and sometimes thankless vocation. In a counseling session I see people at their most vulnerable and sensitive, and sometimes at their most guarded. In my role I can have a window into brokenness, sin, trauma, recovery and redemption which few will have in the same way. To work in mental health is not for the faint of heart, but it is not for the insensitive, either. Even when I work with clients who in no way associate with Christianity, I have a unique and intimate role in their lives which I would freely and openly call a form of ministry. I can speak life, identity, and freedom into someone’s situation exactly when they need it most. I can be a safe place for someone in the same way that Jesus was for otherwise bruised and battered souls in his time.
I live in Boston, Massachusetts, which has some of the highest quality mental health care in the nation. I graduated with a degree in counseling from an evangelical seminary, and throughout all of my training and into my initial counseling work I have worked in secular settings, mostly with people who may never say to a pastor what they would say to me. On occasion I have worked with believers, and it is such a joy to incorporate the health of their souls into what I do. But for the most part, my counseling work is done with those having little if any knowledge of or relationship with God. So much of what I do with people I hope is for the purpose of removing barriers that they have to God. Surely, it is true that in an ultimate sense it is only through God a broken person can come to true and lasting healing. But I will say this: counseling helps. It helps immensely. God can use it in a person’s life whether they know him yet or not. And the church needs to know that.
I thank God for the fact that mental health issues are less stigmatized today than they were in years past. It is of no benefit to a believer (or to anyone, for that matter) to suffer alone or in silence. Neither is it helpful to give overly simplistic answers to problems which are vastly complex. I passionately believe in the power of prayer and in the healing work of the Holy Spirit, but it can do more harm than good to tell a person languishing in depression that they simply need to pray, or to apply Philippians 4:6 like a Band-Aid to someone who may very well have an anxiety disorder or deep-rooted trauma. I know this from personal experience as a survivor of both depression and an eating disorder; the hard work of counseling with a knowledgeable, compassionate professional is a tool that God can profoundly use to bring about healing. And one person’s healing has a way of becoming a testimony and blessing to others, just as my own healing birthed in me a desire to work with others in their time of greatest need.
The church is my family, my community and the context where I see God’s grace on display. But I have so rarely seen pastors and leaders adequately address the mental health concerns which are present and prevalent in each and every church. A pastor has a sacred and important role in providing counsel, but there are many mental health concerns for which a pastor is simply not best suited. And in those times, the church should be quick to encourage and champion the work of counseling and to connect with and celebrate good counselors and mental health organizations. We must have this conversation. Why? Because the church must be a refuge for the broken and hurting; it is the great calling to which we respond. To be silent, or worse, to be an opponent of mental health treatment is to do a disservice to those in need of more significant help.
It could be that the hesitancy comes from a reductionism which overlooks the spiritual for only the psychological, but it could also be that our anthropology is incorrect. A person has more than just spiritual and physical needs, and I have never met anyone who was skeptical about the need to care for one’s physical needs. To get counseling has not been, nor will it ever be tantamount to a denial of the power of God or evidence of a lack of faith. The mind is affected by pain, trauma, and disorder in a world deformed by sin. To be the refuge that we all desire for her to be, the church must highlight mental health needs, being a champion of wholeness in all areas of life.
There is a clear need for solid biblical teaching. There is likewise an evident need for pastoral care, discipleship, community involvement, outreach, and the many arms of what makes up a healthy church. These things point to spiritual health, and we certainly ought to have a high concern for these things and should make that concern known. But we could also ask ourselves this: what sort of powerful testimony could it be to the world if those that were part of the church had the highest concern for and commitment to mental health?
William Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.