Revolutionary Steps toward Mental Health and the Church

This is a guest post written by my friend Joe Padilla. I pray it sheds light into a struggle you might be facing today.

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.

Photo by David Knox of FreeImages

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.”

Photo by GeoC of FreeImages

Photo by GeoC of FreeImages

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.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

  • rainbowgirl

    Colleen,
    Thank you and Joe for your candid interview.I have followed your Father since 1979 in Ca and it was in a series on Job that I first heard him address mental illness or brain disorders as I prefer to call them addressed as experienced by devoted believers. I have twice used Insight for Living counselling line.

    I have Major depression and PTSD and have never shared with anyone in the church . Especially as one who was in leadership roles.

    Joe’s journey and yours with Jon moved me to tears as I related on so many levels.

    I live in Santa Barbara, Ca and have only found help outside the Christian body.

    Again, thanks for opening this topic!
    Wish I could be in Texas with Christians like you, your dad, Joe and My favorite therapist Marilyn Meberg..
    Many hugs.

    Lynne McCleery

    • Lynne,
      How courageous you are to share with me your struggles. If only others were this courageous…and yes, the stigma keeps us from finding any place to land with our pain. I am honored to know you enjoyed the interview. Joe and his family endured so much and to see where God has placed them now is thrilling. I would encourage you to contact them; I know they are doing some amazing things and even using Skype or media networking for helping people. They may know of a group or someone in your area as I know they have opened some work in the Los Angeles area…I’m not sure exactly where. I hope you continue to find the interviews encouraging…I did one with Marilyn and also Patsy Clairmont…both were exceptional. If you find yourself needing some hope, here’s the link to their interviews. Great to connect with you and thank you for choosing to be so vulnerable! You may be paving the way for so many others! Have a great weekend. Colleen
      Patsy Clairmont: http://www.insight.org/resources/videos/special-needs/patsy-clairmont/question-01.html?print= Marilyn Meberg: http://www.insight.org/resources/videos/special-needs/marilyn-meberg/question-01.html?print= These are the first questions…you can also find the whole interview on our blog page: http://specialneeds.iflblog.com/category/video-interviews/