Christians with Mental Health Issues – Should You Talk to Your Pastor or a Mental Health Professional?

Whether depression prevents you from doing well at work or anxiety traps you in your own home, you know that you need help. But as a Christian, you may have concerns about seeing a mental health professional for treatment. Does seeing a therapist or taking medication mean you’re spiritually weak? Aren’t your negative emotions a sign you’re not right with God? Should you talk to your pastor instead? After all, you don’t want to seek advice from someone who may lead you down the wrong path…

These are valid questions and concerns – ones that many Christians, just like you, have asked themselves when dealing with a mental health issue. Unfortunately, uncertainty regarding where to turn can keep you stuck rather than getting the help you need and deserve. If you’re not sure whether a mental health professional is a better choice than your pastor or a lay counselor at your church, then it may be helpful to consider the following:

Mental health issues are not indicators of spiritual or personal weakness.

Many people, including Christians and non-Christians alike, believe that psychiatric problems are the result of weakness, sin, lack of spirituality, or some other personal flaw. However, science has come a long way in demonstrating that conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are the result of real biological and behavioral anomalies rooted in the brain.

For example, depression may develop due to a combination of factors, including genetics, a history of trauma, significant loss, and brain chemistry imbalances. PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a disorder in which a traumatic event (or a series of them) conditions your brain to anticipate danger even when none exists. These and other psychiatric disorders are complex and often involve biological and other factors beyond your control. Even the most spiritual person can develop them under the right circumstances. It’s easy to blame sin and spiritual weakness, but there’s far too much evidence that other factors are the real cause.

Mental health professionals are trained to treat mental health issues and disorders.

Pastors and other clergy certainly play a vital role in guiding the spiritual development of their congregations. However, the key term here is spiritual development. They are often well-trained and well-studied when it comes to matters of God and His message. In contrast, psychologist, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are highly trained to care for people in a different way by focusing on their mental and emotional well-being and healing.

Consider that a person diagnosed with heart disease receives treatment from a heart specialist, a person trained to recognize signs of trouble and manage the condition. That doesn’t mean the ill person should ignore his or her spiritual needs. In fact, it’s common for a Christian battling a health crisis to contact a pastor or prayer group leader to ask for prayers or words of comfort. But it’s a situation in which we usually don’t have trouble putting things in their proper place: the heart specialist treats the body, while the pastor tends the spirit. Your mental health deserves the same specialized care.

A mental health professional understands the biological and cognitive processes that produce psychiatric disorders. For instance, a psychiatrist is able to prescribe medication to reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder, a condition that causes extreme mood swings. The prescription stabilizes a person’s mood, allowing them to achieve a more normal level of functioning. In fact, properly medicating a mental health disorder can mean the difference between lying in a dark bedroom all day or getting out of bed to fulfill your responsibilities to God, family, and work.

Feelings of guilt don’t always mean you’ve sinned.

It’s natural for a Christian to feel guilty when they’ve wronged another. But guilt often operates a bit differently if you struggle with depression. For example, depressed individuals often struggle with guilt that’s related to things outside their control. A mom with depression might be weighed down by excessive guilt because she feels she can’t afford to provide her children with certain opportunities. Brain scans in one study suggest that those with depression may actually experience guilt in a different way than people without it [1].

If you’re struggling with a mental health condition…

You can still adhere to your Christian beliefs while receiving professional treatment for a psychiatric disorder, like anxiety or depression. Following are some strategies for finding a path to wellness:

  • Understand that God wants you to be happy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). The Lord intends for us to live a life of praise and rejoicing. But depression and other conditions steal away our capacity for doing just that. Choosing professional mental health treatment allows you to focus on living and acting in a Christ-like way.
  • Recognize that a mental health condition may prevent you from fulfilling responsibilities. Untreated psychiatric disorders prevent us from fulfilling our obligations to love. In fact, we’re specifically directed to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). Symptoms of many mental illnesses, from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to schizophrenia, can significantly interfere with a person’s ability to care for their family or hold down a job.
  • Find a qualified mental health professional. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). God sometimes provides us with help in unexpected ways. And for Christians living with a disorder of the brain, one of those lifelines is the mental health profession. There are countless caring and skilled doctors, therapists, and counselors who want to help their patients achieve mental well-being. They’ll use tools, such as therapy or medication, to “reboot” your mind to a healthier state.
  • Be open to treatment options. Mental health professionals have plenty of options to guide you back to wellness. Therapy is one of the most common treatment approaches for understanding and changing your troubling behaviors and emotions. By learning what triggers your feelings and why you’ve chosen to act in certain ways, a skilled therapist is able to devise strategies for dealing with them in a healthier way. Another common treatment for some conditions, like depression, is medication. Often used in conjunction with therapy, proper medication helps rebalance your brain chemistry to alleviate symptoms. As a result, it’s easier to live a more normal life.
  • Don’t ignore your spiritual side. Just like the heart attack patient who receives assistance from a doctor and a pastor, treating your entire body will give you the best chance for healing. In addition to getting treatment from a mental health professional, nourish your soul. For example, dedicate time every morning to Bible study or volunteer monthly with a local community group. Whichever way you choose to give back to God or others will bolster your own mental health.
  • Join a support group. Even in the beginning, God said “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Nurture your need for companionship, encouragement, and support by finding a local support group that will accompany you on this journey. Join a support network that focuses on your particular condition, whether it’s anxiety or OCD, or one that has a Christian focus. No matter what type you choose, be sure it emphasizes a warm, supportive, and non-judgmental atmosphere.

Being a Christian doesn’t make you exempt from developing depression, bipolar disorder, or any other serious mental health condition – just as it doesn’t protect you from physical illness such as cancer or heart disease. Don’t assume that it’s any less appropriate or “spiritual” for you to seek treatment from a mental health professional when needed. Your pastor is certainly there for you to offer support and spiritual guidance. However, just as you wouldn’t question seeing an oncologist to treat your cancer, recognize that it’s okay – and appropriate – to seek out a mental health professional to help you with your mental health needs.