Laurel Shaler, Ph.D.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Actually, it has been for over 60 years. Surprised? Me too. It’s not something we talk about every day…particularly in some church settings.
Tragically, the topic of mental health has long been taboo. The National Institute of Mental Health states that a full 25% of Americans are diagnosable with one or more mental illnesses. One in four. People you know. Your friends. Neighbors. Maybe even loved ones. Despite this grave statistic, and even with an entire month dedicated to bringing light to this often neglected topic, the challenges and reality of mental illness still do not get appropriate attention. Not from government officials, not from the community, and certainly not from the church.
It seems that despite the words out of the mouth of Jesus Himself that we (His followers) would have troubles (John 16:33), the Christian community often times blames mental illness on sin or a lack of faith. And while there are certainly areas of sin that tie into negative emotions (such as an affair leading to anxiety), all negative emotions are not a result of sin. Likewise with lack of faith. Sure, we do allow fear and worry, doubt and insecurities to creep in when we do not have our eyes focused on the Lord, but that does not mean that all of these emotions (and others) are a result of lack of faith.
But what is even more problematic, in my opinion, is when those who have severe or chronic mental illness are portrayed to not only have a sin problem or a faith problem…but as individuals who are oppressed or possessed by the devil. This particular article is not about how to differentiate mental illness from demonic activity, but I do seek to offer some guidance as to how Christian counselors can help the church body help unmask the shame of mental illness. Here are a few tips:
1. Remember that mental illness is illness and identify it as such. In the same way that most people would not claim that cancer is due to sin. In the same way that most people would be willing to take insulin if they had diabetes. In the same way that most people would have their appendix removed if it ruptured. So should we identify mental illness as an illness that warrants appropriate medical attention.
2. Educate others on about mental illness, in particular those who have influence over congregations, such as pastors and other ministerial staff. Educate these folks on the difference between Pastoral/Biblical Counseling and Mental Health Counseling. Educate them on how to manage crises in the church. Make sure they have access important resources (such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255). Be there to support these folks as they support congregants with mental illness.
3. Recognize that God supplies all of our needs (Phil. 4:17) and that sometimes those needs are best met through means beyond what we, as Christian counselors, can supply. If serving as a lay counselor, take note of your own competency and when someone has a need that lies outside of your knowledge and training, refer. We must collaborate with other professionals. We must be open to our clients taking mental health medication. We must be open to looking at our clients from a holistic approach.
As counselors, but more importantly as Christians, God calls us to comfort others. He tells us in 2 Corinthians that He comforts us so that we can comfort others. But comfort is an action. We need to get involved. We must pray, but we must also remember that mental illness is illness, we need to educate others about this truth, and we must work together to help those with mental illness. We can’t just refer those with mental illness into the community and then forget about them. We need to walk alongside them each step of the way. So, let’s work together to help take off the mask of shame that covers mental illness. Not just in May, but all year round.
Laurel Shaler is a Licensed Social Worker with a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from Regent University. She currently teaches in counseling programs for Capella University, Clemson University, and Liberty University. Additionally, she writes and speaks to women in an effort to help them anchor their emotions to God and achieve abundant life in Christ. She and her husband, Nick, make their home in the Upstate of South Carolina where they are active in community and church. They love spending time with friends and family, especially their two rambunctious nephews. Laurel can be found blogging on her website at www.drlaurelshaler.com. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/drlaurelshaler or on Twitter (@DrLaurelShaler).