I’m a Christian. What I mean by that is I’m a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and therefore, I try to live my life under His Lordship. And, like most Christians I have experienced trials and afflictions of varying sorts throughout my life. This is normal and I haven’t expected that I would be exempt from that. Several of my afflictions are chronic in that they have waxed and waned throughout my life. I’m not suggesting that my experience of suffering from these afflictions is any worse than all the kinds of afflictions that a person may experience, but what I am saying is that my afflictions do indeed cause suffering and sometimes that suffering can be excruciating. The afflictions that I’m referring to are my Panic Disorder and my Pure O-OCD.
What I’d like to express in this blog is that it’s often much harder for a Christian who has a mental illness to get the help and support they need than a person who isn’t a Christian. First off, we may feel ashamed of our illness because of the stigma that still remains within some churches which suggests that mental illnesses are spiritual problems. We may even believe this kind of thing all on our own, based upon the things we’ve heard over the years. But the second reason, has to do with the fact that we often feel confused and torn in regard to seeking help. Should we seek help from a pastor or Biblical counselor or, should we seek help from a doctor; such as a psychologist or psychiatrist? The good news for me, is that I have been able to obtain help for my disorders. The bad news is that I avoided getting help for many, many years.
There are a lot of reasons for this and those are the things that I wanted to share about in this blog/letter. But before I jump in, I wanted to express that I have the greatest admiration for all of you. I thank God for pastors and Biblical counselors; for the heart they have to serve the Lord which in turn compels them to serve His people. I have been greatly blessed in my own life by the way God has used my Pastors to teach and comfort me. But, I also thank God for psychologists and psychiatrists, especially now that I’ve benefited from your medical expertise and your desire to help alleviate the suffering that mental disorders cause to those of us who are afflicted. Please hold these assertions in mind should choose to press on through the rest of this blog.
Now that I’ve made that clear, I feel ready to move on to the thing that I see going on between a fairly large number of ministers of the faith and ministers of health that can really throw up a roadblock for those of us who need help and encouragement from all of you. There are some Pastors and Biblical counselors who discourage people who have a mental health diagnosis from seeking help from a psychologist or a psychiatrist. And, there are some psychologists and psychiatrists who tell their patients to avoid talking to their pastor or Biblical counselor about their suffering. This makes me sad because there is benefit to be had for Christians who suffer from mental illness from the whole lot of you.
So why would some pastors/Biblical counselors discourage us from seeking professional help? I think I’ve uncovered a few of those reasons, although there are likely other reasons that I’m not aware of.
First off; there are still some, not all, of you who don’t believe that mental illnesses are valid afflictions. You may really imagine that you are correct; not because you are a mean or judgmental individual but just because you lack an education in regard to the cause and management of mental illnesses and therefore, you have nothing to go on in regard to your point of view, other than presupposition. I know this is true, because now that I’m “out there” about my anxiety disorders some of you have told me that my problem isn’t a mental illness at all, but rather a lack of faith. (This was what I feared might happen.)
There are some of you who have insisted that those of us who are suffering, just need to have more faith, read our Bible more and pray for healing and all shall be most well. I’ve been very blessed that none of my Pastors have ever held these opinions, but over the years I’ve heard stories where this kind of counsel was given to other people like me and I hear tell that it’s pretty painful to be blamed for something that you didn’t choose. Then, what if you follow that counsel and work even harder at reading your Bible, praying, and trying to muster up enough faith to make your mental illness disappear and it’s still there? What are you to do when this counsel hasn’t worked? Will you despair? Sadly, some do – even of life itself. I know these attitudes are still out there within the church because I’ve heard them being espoused in Bible studies and on Christian talk radio. And, it’s these attitudes and these stories which played a role in regard to why I held back from seeking help and chose to just keep my suffering to myself rather than run the risk of opening up and being chastised for a weak spiritual condition or a lack of Biblical understanding.
Secondly, some of you may have heard some ugly tales of Christians who sought professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, who were then given counsel which violated or disrespected their faith and so you may feel the need to protect the folk in your congregation from the harm that you think might happen to their faith if they seek professional help for their disorder. If so, your motive may be pure, but there still remains this major hurdle in regard to your limits: You can only do so much to help the person in your congregation who is afflicted with a mental illness just as you can only do so much for the person who is afflicted with cancer, or a heart condition, or diabetes.
You are not trained to diagnose and treat all the differing kinds of mental illness and in order to do so you would need more than a doctorate in theology. You would also need a doctorate in psychology or psychiatry. This isn’t to say that the people in your congregation who are suffering don’t need your encouragement, your prayers, your support and your compassion, but you need to offer it to those of us with mental illnesses in the exact same way you offer it to people with differing afflictions. I’m quite sure you’d be very quick to acknowledge your limits in regard to what you are able to do for the folk who are afflicted with other types of illness. I’m sure you wouldn’t pull out a stethoscope and diagnose a heart condition or pull out a prescription pad and write a script for insulin for the diabetic and therefore, if you believe that mental illnesses are valid afflictions which are caused by chemical imbalances and even genetically inherited, then surely you must realize that more often than not, professional assistance is also needed.
But you see here’s the thing you may not have considered; your opinions carry a lot of weight with those of us who are suffering. If you tell us that it’s a sin for us to seek professional help, we probably won’t do it. If you tell us that using medication to treat our illness demonstrates a lack of faith, we probably won’t use it because we are trusting you to counsel us in such a way that we will live a life that’s pleasing to our Lord. And sadly, this, in turn, may be one of the reasons why some psychologists and psychiatrists tell their Christian patients to steer clear of you. And that’s definitely not a good thing for us either!
Moving right along to the other side of this issue; there are also ways that some, not all, psychologists/psychiatrists may make it very hard for a Christian to get the help they need for their mental illness. The main reason will likely be a scoffing or disrespectful attitude toward our faith and the moral ethical choices that are married to it. How do I know that this happens? I’ve had conversations with some people who are afflicted with my disorder, OCD, who have shared about some pretty awful encounters. For instance; I used to struggle with Religious OCD and one of the ways that I managed the obsessional themes that came with this type of OCD was to employ a behavioral therapy approach called: “Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy or ERP. (It should come as no surprise to those ministers of faith who are reading this blog that they don’t understand what this means. That’s okay, I don’t expect you to.)
The obsessions that can plague a Christian with OCD will often be those which run completely against the grain of our faith and our desire to live a life that is obedient to Christ. You professionals will typically reference these thoughts as being ego-dystonic. These obsessions can cause the OCD sufferer to feel that the their relationship with Christ is at risk. These feelings are false and are part and parcel of how OCD operates. A well schooled psychologist/behavioral therapist will know this. And yet, there are some of you who don’t take this particular obsessional theme as seriously as you would other obsessional themes and therefore, you may suggest things to the Christian which run completely counter to their faith and allegiance to Christ.
You may be more than ready to help the person who struggles with Relationship OCD by telling them that they need to stay in a relationship with their spouse and not allow the OCD to make them run from it, while at the same time, telling the Christian with Religious OCD that if going to church, reading their Bible or praying makes them feel anxious or uncomfortable that it’s okay to stop doing those things, as if they don’t really matter. Why would you make such a suggestion when you are well aware that in OCD avoidance is a compulsion and compulsions only make OCD worse? Do you think it would be right to promote the insignificance or separation of a human relationship just because of OCD? Would you tell the mother with Harm OCD to quit taking care of her children? If you did, you could certainly be accused of endorsing neglect.
The only reason I can think of for a psychologist to tell a Christian that they don’t need to bother about reading their Bible, praying or going to church would more than likely be just a general disrespect and disregard for the validity or importance of their Christian patient’s faith. When you treat our faith as being insignificant we can no longer come to you for help. And, when we can no longer come to you for help, we are often left grappling with a disorder that is creating enormous pain and not knowing where to turn next. This is just one of many scenarios that I’ve heard about where a Christian with OCD might be expressing fears in regard to religious themes where a psychologist, rather than treating the patient according to protocol, interjects their worldview or philosophy into the treatment and then suddenly the Christian patient is left without the help they need to manage their illness because they can’t work with a professional who disrespects their faith and their moral and ethical beliefs.
These are just some of the roadblocks that this tug of war between ministers of the Gospel and ministers of health create for the Christian who is afflicted with a mental illness. There are certainly valid reasons on both sides of the aisle for distrust, but do any of you ever take into consideration how all of this impacts the Christian who is afflicted? I can tell you that this creates just a huge amount of confusion and trepidation in regard to our being able to seek and receive the help we need.
Those of us who live with these disorders need to be ministered to from all of you. It shouldn’t be an either/or thing but rather a both/and thing. The last thing we need when we are experiencing the pain of our disorder is to be confused or made to feel guilty about where to go for help.
While I certainly don’t know everything that needs to happen to overcome this sad state of affairs, I do know that there are some doors opening up for the church and it’s leaders to become better equipped to minister to those in the flock who are afflicted with mental disorders. Education is certainly key, but that can’t happen if the will to disbelieve in the validity of mental illness is stronger than a willingness to listen to another point of view. This willingness needs to happen on both sides of the aisle. My faith teaches me that I am to show respect and honor toward all people. I think this is a pretty good way to open up a line of communication with others whether you are a Christian or not.
Below I’ve listed two organizations which are working toward educating the church in regard to how they can be better equipped to minister to those who have mental health disorders:
Mitzi VanCleve is a mother and an author with a very powerful witness of how God has provided her with grace and strength through her personal experience with OCD and Social Anxiety Disorder. She’s recently launched a new blog, The OCD Christian to offer hope and encouragement to others experiencing similar struggles. Her book, Strivings Within-The OCD Christian is available at Amazon.