Christian Mental Health Counseling Help Article
This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Mentor Magazine, a magazine for ministers. Reprinted by permission of Faith Christian Fellowship International.
It’s a mistake to tell God how to be God. We ask for help and He decides how to provide it.
When people go through life crises, they often turn to their pastors for help. Sometimes they need lay or pastoral counseling and the loving support of the church family. Other times their complex problems may go beyond the pastor’s expertise or availability; yet some pastors are concerned about referring people to mental health professionals. What if the doctor prescribes a pill for the symptoms and ignores the root cause of the problem? What if the counselor undermines their faith? What about healing through faith and scripture? How do you draw the line between mental health problems and issues that are rooted in past hurts or abuse?
In this interview, Dr. Stephen Harnish, Dr. Faith Sellen, and Chaplain Betty-Jo Anderson give their perspectives concerning the value and efficacy of Christian counseling, and it’s role in helping people receive God’s plan for recovery and growth.
Stephen Harnish, M.D. is a board certified psychiatrist and Associate Medical Director at Brookhaven Hospital. He is a graduate of the University of New Mexico Medical School and received specialized training at Dartmouth Medical School. A graduate of Louisiana State University, Faith Sellen, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Therapist for the Renewal Chemical Dependency Program at Brookhaven Hospital. Chaplain at Brookhaven Hospital, Reverend Betty-Jo Anderson graduated from North Central University in Minneapolis, and is pursuing a masters of divinity and masters of Christian counseling at Oral Roberts University. Dr. Harnish, Dr. Sellen, and Chaplain Anderson work together at the Renewal Program of Brookhaven Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Renewal Program provides a Christian approach to the treatment of behavioral health, chemical dependence, and eating disorders.
How is Christian counseling different from secular counseling?
Dr. Harnish: We can treat the whole person, body, mind and spirit. We can enlist God’s direction and assistance from the start. I spoke to a patient recently who was fired from her psychiatrist because she (the patient) kept talking about her faith. The psychiatrist told her not to come back. It makes such a difference when the patient knows that we are believers. We can maximize their faith instead of minimizing it. Our trust in God is the foundation for health and healing.
Dr. Sellen: When I’m counseling a Christian, there is a shared experience and belief system. There is freedom to utilize scripture and prayer. When people are psychotic or recovering from addiction, they are down in the pits. They feel worthless and their minds may not be clear. So I keep it very simple. I tell them, God loves you unconditionally. As His creation, you are beautiful and wonderful. He died for you and is willing to forgive you. You need to forgive yourself and move on to become the person He created you to be. Our shared belief creates a strong connection.
Chaplain Anderson: Effective Christian counselors respect and understand a person’s belief system. They encourage spiritual growth rather than negate it. They look for spiritual keys to unlock the individual’s understanding if he or she is stuck. They offer prayer, which can allow the person to have a therapeutic release of emotions beyond what is possible through conversation alone. They respect the person’s innate gifts, realizing that we are all fellow travelers on this journey of growth toward God. In this way, they become an extension of the work of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter in tangible form.
Why do people need counseling or mental healthcare? Shouldn’t we be able to address all our needs through prayer and scripture alone?
Dr. Sellen: God has given us many gifts to help us live abundant lives. They include prayer and scripture as well as wisdom, medicine, learning, and teachers. God’s grace is bigger than our problems. We benefit by opening ourselves to all his gifts. For example, if your child was sick or dying, you would pray and use scripture—and you would also use medicine
Dr. Harnish: As members of the body of Christ, we have a duty to assist each other. God works through us to help each other. It’s like your own body. If your left arm itches, you send your right hand over to scratch it. As a member of the body of Christ, if you are the left arm, you could seek help directly from the right hand. You could also ask the head (Christ), Jesus, please stop this itch, and He could send the right hand over.
God could send the right hand to scratch it (counseling), or ointment to ease the itch (medicine). It is up to us to make ourselves available to God. It is an honor to be asked by God and a privilege to serve other members of the Body.
Chaplain Anderson: Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of need teaches that people must meet their physical need for food, shelter, safety and health, before they can focus on social and spiritual needs. Jesus said, For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. …Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me, Matthew 25:35 & 40 (NIV). Paul said, Faith, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead, James 2:17 (NIV).
When people come to us with physical and emotional needs, we must meet those before they are open to address spiritual needs. Prayer and scripture are vital, but God also gives us relationships. We need to be Jesus’ love extended.
Are psychotherapy and psychotropic medications secular, humanistic answers to spiritual problems?
Dr. Harnish: The devil uses every weapon in his arsenal to disrupt God’s plan for our lives. We should use every weapon available to come against him. I liken it to the armed forces going to fight a war: the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. I see the Army as medication. It is in the trenches to do physical battle. As a psychiatrist, I am a general in the Army. I direct the forces and arm the nerve endings with Zoloft ™, or Paxil ™ or Seroquil ™—whatever is the best weapon to assist the physical body to return to normal. The Navy is counseling. It is more fluid and performs a different, but equally necessary function. The Air Force is prayer and scripture. I call it the Heir Force, because we are heirs of salvation. When we pray and speak the Word of God, we are performing air strikes on the devil.
You wouldn’t go to war with only one branch of the service. All three are essential. Why limit God by using only one weapon for recovery, when more are available?
Chaplain Anderson: This is a difficult situation for many born again believers. We believe God for healing, yet we trust a doctor’s diagnosis and take medication. If you have angina, you take nitroglycerin. Taking medication for mental illness is just like taking medicine for physical illness. Using medication and therapy does not negate God’s healing power, nor is it a sign of spiritual failure.
Dr. Sellen: In simple terms, psychotherapy is new learning. It is simply a way for people to gain insight and learn new ways of thinking and acting that lead to health and wholeness. Sometimes the new learning occurs in a relationship with another person, like a counselor. The new learning may be looking at how they got stuck in the past, thinking differently in order to have the option to produce different behaviors. New learning encounters can help people become whole by providing new choices for how to react to things, think about things and do things.
It is important to understand that mental illness is real illness. It occurs when the brain chemistry does not function correctly. The right medication can help the brain function correctly, like insulin for a diabetic. I believe medication is another gift God has given.
What are the dangers if we avoid referring people to mental healthcare?
Dr. Harnish: The bottom line is death through suicide. You must always keep an eye on depression. As a pastor, if you are lovingly counseling someone through the Word, it is critical that you not miss or ignore the signs of deepening depression and desperation. Suicidal thoughts are symptoms of major depression the same way that chest pains are symptoms of heart disease. They are symptoms, not moral failure. Depression is a medical condition with symptoms in the mind. Suicidal thoughts signal danger just like chest pains signal a possible heart attack. Rather than focus on guilt and judgment, we must take the message the mind is sending, which is, I need safety and treatment now.
The other danger of missing an opportunity to refer someone for mental health treatment is that they may suffer much longer than necessary. As a physician, I always want to avoid mortality and minimize morbidity (suffering). If a person is suffering with a mental illness, addiction or eating disorder, they may or may not get better without treatment. Even if they do get better on their own, it could take many months or even years. That is so unnecessary, when with medication and counseling, they could get back to functioning well within one or two months.
Dr. Sellen: It is so important to know when to refer someone for professional help. Depending on the problem, if people with mental illness do not get the help they need, they can make devastating choices and their lives can be turned upside down. They can ruin marriages and careers, get into financial and legal trouble, be a danger to themselves and others, or commit suicide.
Chaplain Anderson: Why would we avoid referring someone who needs help, if it is out of our area of expertise? There is no shame in that. We cannot be all parts of the Body of Christ. The foot cannot be the hand. We need each other. When we put our egos before the health of someone else, it becomes about us instead of them. Then we do more harm than good. I love the words of Rev. Aimee Cortese, an Assemblies of God minister in the Bronx. She said, We are not the Savior, we are not the Healer, and we are not the Judge, but we are vessels for the Holy Spirit to others. As a vessel, if I don’t know how to help, I can refer to a believer. Jesus said, Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, John 8:32 (NIV).
What are the benefits of incorporating spirituality into mental healthcare?
Dr. Sellen: That’s where the power is. Scripture says that where two or more are gathered, God is present. If we are talking about health and wholeness in mind, body and spirit, then we are leaving something out if we do not address spirituality. There is great power in tapping into someone’s faith to deal with issues.
Dr. Harnish: In my personal daily prayer I ask God for His wisdom. I ask patients to pray over their medications like they do over their food, to pray that the medications will work the way they are supposed to and to minimize side effects. Our professional staff prays before our treatment team meetings. We ask God to bless our patients’ recovery and help the patient and us go beyond what can be done in the natural. He answers those prayers and we give Him the glory. We do not take the credit ourselves—M.D. does not stand for Medical Deity.
Chaplain Anderson: God is about truth and setting His people free from bondage. As we allow God to work and minister through us to others who are not living the abundant life God desires, we fulfill Isaiah 35:3-4 which says, Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, be strong, do not fear; your God will come…. He will come to save you (NIV). The benefit of incorporating our Christianity into counseling is the person can be made whole.
Brookhaven Hospital provides Christian-oriented programs for people dealing with mental health problems, chemical dependence and eating disorders. For more information, please contact us at 1(888) 298-HOPE.
Brookhaven is accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), is Medicare approved and is licensed by the state of Oklahoma.