As Americans’ opinions about counseling continue to trend more positively, the church has room to improve its efforts to eliminate the tension between faith and mental healthcare.
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, licensed psychologist and host of the “Therapy for Black Girls” podcast, said she has seen a bit of progress in that area.
“I’ve been encouraged to see more and more faith communities talk about the fact that you can have faith and a therapist,” she said. “You can talk to your pastor and talk to a therapist. So that’s encouraging, but I think we still have a long way to go.”
Obstacles that prevent African Americans from seeking professional help can include miseducation about mental health, belief that mental illnesses are punishment from God, or shame associated with admitting to needing help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Musician Anthony Evans has no shame when talking about his experience with therapy.
“People can say whatever they want. I don’t care. Counseling has changed my life,” he said in a recent YouTube video. “It takes more strength for a person, but especially a man, and especially a Black male. It takes more strength to admit you need it and admit you’re vulnerable in that way than it does to act tough. I know that for a fact. Acting tough is not as strong as showing that you’re weak.”
Evans is the son of prominent pastor, Dr. Tony Evans. While discussing his new book, Unexpected Places: Thoughts on God, Faith, and Finding Your Voice in an interview with his sister Chrystal Evans Hurst, the recording artist and worship leader detailed a recent counseling experience.
“When we went through the recent loss of our beautiful cousin, I was on the phone. My counselor, she’s amazing. She was on-call for me because I needed to process going through it,” he said. “I was doing 30-minute sessions. I would walk out of the house while our family was grieving and would get on the phone and do a session with my counselor and then walk back in the house.”
Dr. Joy said people incorrectly assume they have to compartmentalize faith and therapy.
“People think that you’ll come to therapy and the therapist will be like, ‘You can’t pray,’ or the therapist is working against the pastor. That is typically not what happens at all, especially if the therapist is faith-sensitive or affirming of what your faith background is and wants to incorporate that into the treatment plan.”
She recommended that faith communities find ways to normalize counseling by injecting it into church DNA through public endorsements and referrals. “Anything that falls outside of the realm of what you are trained to do as a pastor should be an automatic referral,” she said. “The more that churches talk about mental health, the less weird that feels for the pastor to make that referral.”
Church of God in Christ World Missions, for example, recognized Suicide Prevention Week 2018 on Facebook by offering to be “a source of strength” for families impacted by mental health issues. Poet and author Jackie Hill Perry posted on Instagram, “Therapy hasn’t made me whole but it’s sure made me better. || There’s no shame in getting help. Only healing.”
Mental illness, healing from the impact of suicide, and preventing suicide are issues churches are working to address for the benefit of their congregants and leaders. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, the second leading cause of death for adults 25-34 years old and the third leading cause of death for people 15-24 years old, according to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. A LifeWay Research study revealed that nearly one in four pastors said they have experienced mental illness, and 12 percent said they received a diagnosis for a mental health condition.
Inland Hills Church lead pastor Andrew Stoecklein, 30, attempted to take his life August 24 and died hours later at a hospital. Stoecklein’s widow Kayla said her husband had been diagnosed with depression in April. Kay Warren, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention executive committee member and Saddleback Church co-founder, was scheduled to speak at Inland Hills about healing and hope after suicide. Warren’s 27-year-old son Matthew took his life in 2013.
Pastor Stoecklein spoke in his last sermon on August 12 about his struggles with depression, anxiety, and a mental “breakdown” that led to a sabbatical. After receiving treatment at a hospital for a panic attack, he said, “I don’t remember much of what happened next, but around nine or 10, I get back to the house and we’re in the living room with the board of directors, the elders, the leadership staff, my family, and they said, ‘You know what, Drew? We don’t think it’s a good idea that you get on stage this Sunday.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I agree.’”
A 2018 Harris Poll revealed that most Americans believe suicide is preventable and would encourage a person with mental illness to get help from a healthcare professional. Dr. Joy recommends finding a therapist with specialized training, and, if needed, talking to multiple therapists to find the right relationship.
“You would want to find somebody who has expertise in whatever you’re struggling with. For example, a new mom struggling with postpartum depression, find a therapist who has training and expertise in postpartum depression,” she said.
“Sometimes you will have to go to a couple different therapists before you find somebody that you really feel like is a good match for you. I don’t want people not to be discouraged if they have to go to two or three therapists before they find the one that’s right for them. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or anything wrong with the therapist.”
She also advises checking therapists’ credentials to ensure effective treatment and privacy. “You have to be careful about what people are calling themselves. Christian counseling doesn’t always mean the person is licensed by the state,” the Atlanta, Georgia, psychologist explained. “You want to find somebody who is licensed by the state who has at least a master’s degree and their license is in good standing, because as licensed therapists in each state we are bound by state laws and our national ethical guidelines related to confidentiality.”
Psychologists do not need consent to disclose information when patients talk about harming themselves or others, and they are required to report domestic violence and abuse of children or the elderly, according to the American Psychological Association. “Other than the exceptions, anything you say to a therapist is strictly confidential,” Dr. Joy said.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Visit the National Alliance for Mental Illness website for resources on preventing suicide and improving mental health.