Is Your Faith Keeping You From Getting the Help You Need?

If you’re like the vast majority of Christians, you wouldn’t think twice about going to a medical doctor for chest pain, difficulties breathing, or a broken bone. After all, your physician has had years of specialized training to treat your health conditions, so why wouldn’t you go?

When it comes to depression, anxiety, or other “emotional” issues, however, you may be reluctant or refuse to even consider seeking “treatment”. You may believe that any type of mental health issue is really a reflection of your faith – or lack thereof – and can only be remedied with a spiritual approach. In other words, with things like prayer, fasting, spending time reading the Bible, and – perhaps as a last resort – seeking spiritual counsel from a pastor, lay counselor, or other spiritual guide. The idea of going to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other type of mental health professional for help would suggest that you don’t trust God to help you.

So, why the discrepancy? Why is it perfectly fine to get treatment for medical conditions from qualified medical professionals, but seeking help for mental health problems suggests a lack of faith? Are the two types of problems really any different?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the condescending lectures or sermons you’ve heard over the years. That’s what happened to Lisa.

A devout Christian, Lisa had struggled with depression to varying degrees since her 20s. Despite her struggles over the years, she’d been able to manage it well enough that only those closest to her knew about her depression. Now in her early 40s, she was recently divorced and experiencing serious financial struggles. Her husband had left her for another woman. The pain of the loss of her marriage, combined with severe financial stress, made her depression worse than it had ever been before.

One evening, as thoughts of suicide began to cross her mind, she picked up the phone in desperation and called an older woman from her former church. Susan was someone she had once looked up to for spiritual guidance. Seeking encouragement and compassion from Susan, who often preached about the importance of being like Christ, Lisa was stunned when she received anything but. Instead, Susan responded with a harsh, condescending, and lengthy lecture. She criticized Lisa for her lack of faith, her failure to “feed upon the word” sufficiently, and outright blamed her for her depression. She told Lisa that she was depressed because she “wasn’t right with God” and clearly had sin in her life.

Lisa initially sat and listened in disbelief. This woman called herself a Christian, yet was judgmental, proud, and hurtful – certainly acting nothing like Christ. Eventually, she put the phone down (but didn’t hang up) and walked away in tears. She couldn’t bear to hear anymore. After about 10 minutes, she picked up the phone, only to hear Susan continue with her diatribe. Susan was so caught up in her preaching, that she didn’t even realize Lisa had left the conversation for several minutes. At that point, Lisa hung up the phone and wept. She never heard from Susan again…

Lisa’s experience is, sadly, far from uncommon for many Christians. It’s one of the primary reasons why so many don’t seek help for mental health problems and related issues when they so desperately need it. The irony is that, if she had called Susan and said she’d been diagnosed with leukemia, the response she received would almost certainly have been entirely different. Susan may still have encouraged her to draw closer to God during this scary ordeal, but would likely not have blamed her for the cancer or accused her of having sin in her life. Her tone would probably have been far more compassionate and caring, rather than critical and harsh.

It’s unfortunate that Christians often moralize and spiritualize mental health problems. They put them in a separate category from medical disorders. Except for the more extreme Christian sects, medical treatment for physical conditions is not only regarded as completely acceptable, it’s encouraged. Going to your primary doctor, dentist, optometrist, and ob-gyn on a regular basis is regarded as being responsible. It’s part of taking care of the “temple” – your body.

Most medical and mental health professionals regard psychiatric disorders as medically-based conditions. While irrational beliefs and faulty “programming” from childhood certainly play a role in disorders like depression and anxiety, few will argue that biology, genetics, and / or imbalances in brain chemicals also play a significant role in the vast majority of psychiatric disorders. Even substance abuse and addiction, which are typically regarded as highly taboo in Christian circles, are believed to be driven, at least in part, by these factors.

Mental health problems are not caused by sin. They’re not an automatic indicator of spiritual deficiency or a faltering faith. Some of the greatest spiritual leaders and prominent Biblical characters battled depression and other mental health issues. They are part of the human condition, and no different than “medical” problems.

No one goes through life unscathed. It’s a rare person – and a rare Christian – who never experiences depression, trauma, anxiety, serious relationship problems, or other significant emotional challenges at some point in life. Some people draw the short straw in the genetic lottery, born with a strong predisposition towards very serious, chronic disorders like bipolar I disorder and schizophrenia. They certainly aren’t to blame when those disorders develop.

While prayer, meditating on God’s word, and other spiritual endeavors certainly should be part of the healing process, they are rarely enough and shouldn’t take the place of appropriate treatment. Rather than relying on them exclusively, use them in conjunction with your treatment. It’s not that God isn’t quite capable of healing bipolar disorder or severe ADHD – after all, he’s omnipotent. He’s fully capable of healing cancer and type I diabetes with a wave of his hand as well, but for reasons beyond our comprehension, that’s not how he typically chooses to work.

Most psychiatric disorders can be successfully treated or at least significantly helped by a mental health professional. Psychotherapy is not voodoo, witchcraft, or black magic. Psychiatric medications can help reduce, prevent, and / or manage symptoms just like medications for any other health condition. Neither form of treatment is in direct conflict with God’s teachings.

If you’re concerned that a secular therapist might “lead you astray” in some way, then you can always seek treatment from a Christian mental health professional. Look for someone who uses Biblical teachings in his or her treatment approach. Many who do often advertise themselves as a “Christian therapist (or psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.)”, or they work in a Christian treatment setting.

While pastors and other clergy often provide counseling to church members, it’s important to keep in mind that they rarely have any formal mental health training or credentials and are not qualified to treat psychiatric disorders. The same is true for the “lay counselors” that are often found in many churches. They can be great resources for spiritual counseling and guidance, but may do more harm than good when it comes to helping you with mental health issues.

When it comes to your mental health (or that of a loved one), the old adage holds true: “Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.” The “act” part includes seeking treatment. Just as medical doctors and nurses are trained to treat your medical needs, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are trained to treat your mental health needs. Don’t let your faith prevent you from getting the treatment you both need and deserve. The sooner you get your life back on track, the sooner you can get back to fulfilling God’s plan for your life.