While widespread concern about mental health in America is not new, it has taken on a fresh sense of urgency in recent years as rates of mental illnesses have risen, especially among younger generations.
In fact, a recent survey revealed that 90% of Americans believe that the nation is “experiencing a mental health crisis.”
Nevertheless, people of faith have long found it difficult to openly discuss mental health issues in their churches. For many years, suspicion toward the field of psychology has been a hallmark of evangelicalism, with many accusing it of being a worldly ideology.
This is despite the fact that among those working in the field of psychology have always been fully devoted followers of Jesus who have committed their professional lives to helping people.
While many evangelical church leaders have certainly improved in this regard, overcoming stereotypes held by previous generations and exemplifying candor in publicly sharing their own mental health challenges, any number of misconceptions about psychology still remain.
Here are four things to know about Christian psychology.
1. Psychology Is a Broad Area of Vast Research
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, during the budding days of the discipline of psychology, much of the reflection on the inner workings of the human mind had a much greater overlap with philosophy than the hard sciences.
However, in more recent times, the field of psychology is highly scientific, as well as incredibly specialized.
Psychological research involves biology, neuroscience, statistical analysis, social science, laboratory experimentation, and qualitative research.
Far beyond the stereotypical image of a person with a clipboard sitting behind a patient on a couch, psychologists specialize in areas of cognition, memory, human development, and social dynamics, as well as many other areas of research and application.
When it comes to clinical psychology, research is peer-reviewed, tested as to whether the results of a given study can be replicated, and discussed in academic circles at length before any of the possible treatment methodologies that may arise from it are implemented.
Similarly, the field of psychiatry is actually a branch of the medical field. Psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists are medical doctors who have extensive training in human brain chemistry and clinical diagnoses, and they can prescribe treatment options that may include medication and other mental health interventions.
These professionals often work in conjunction with psychologists who provide counseling services.
All this to be said, when you engage with the world of psychology to address your mental health concerns, you are dealing with a group of people who know what they’re doing. This isn’t pseudoscience or some fringe operation. These professionals can help you.
2. Christian Psychology Is Not the Same Thing as Biblical Counseling
While it’s easy to mix up the terms, Christians who practice clinical psychology are not the same thing as biblical counselors.
While considerable debate exists about which avenue is most beneficial for Christians seeking to address mental health concerns, I advocate for the former rather than the latter.
To be sure, there is much that Christian clinical psychologists and biblical counselors agree on. For instance, they share values that are fundamental to the Christian faith, such as the inherent sinfulness of humanity, Jesus as the only Savior, the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about deliverance and transformation, and the supremacy of the Bible in evaluating all moral and spiritual claims.
Where the two disagree is that biblical counselors see the Bible not only as the grid through which all mental health interventions ought to be evaluated but the only source from which those treatments should be derived. In other words, the Bible alone is sufficient for diagnosing and redressing every mental health concern.
Conversely, Christians who practice clinical psychology recognize that the Bible, while sufficient in matters pertaining to our understanding of God and our eternal relationship with him, does not comprehensively address every question related to human flourishing in light of the challenges brought upon by the fall of humanity.
To the Christian psychologist, all truth is God’s truth, and any scientific research that can be used to the benefit of human flourishing, including mental health, should be leveraged to the fullest extent it can be helpful.
Certainly, not all psychological treatment practices are created equal, and Christian psychologists strive to address and correct any underlying assumptions about the nature of humanity or other important Christian doctrines that may not be in line with Scripture to ensure they guide patients toward a path that is as biblically supported as it is methodologically sound. But this is work that Christian psychologists are more than willing to do.
This is why I am thankful for psychology programs on the campuses of Christian universities, which gather insights from trained theologians as well as trained clinicians to provide a psychological education that helps people and exalts Christ.
3. Seeking Psychological Treatment Is Not a Sign of Insufficient Faith
Here is where this becomes incredibly practical for Christians. It is not a sin for Christians to struggle with mental health. Mental illness is not the result of a lack of faith.
Humans are complex beings. That’s part of what makes us wonderful. Nevertheless, because we are so complex, when something goes awry in our mental health, the answer is rarely simple.
Our psychology is a composite of biological factors, personal experiences, emotional proclivities, and spiritual realities.
Mental health professionals, many of them devoted Christians who began pursuing their line of work as a part of their calling to love others as they love themselves, have made it their vocational mission to help you untangle all that is complicated in your heart and brain and help you step into a greater experience of mental health.
Accepting their help does not make you any less of a Christian. In fact, these mental health professionals are God’s grace to you. Far from a lack of faith, it is a step forward in faith to seek help for the mental health challenges you are facing.
Christians ought not to feel shame for seeking mental health interventions to treat their depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness that may plague them. It is not your fault that you live in a broken world. It’s not wrong to need help.
It is certainly true that God desires that his people be holy. But he also wants them to be made whole. And while we will never experience the fullness of either wholeness or holiness on this side of eternity, anything that helps us travel further along that path is a gift.
4. Pastors Are Not Adequately Trained to Provide Ongoing Mental Health Services
Important to note is that your local pastor is most likely not adequately trained to offer mental health advice or treatment on a professional level.
This isn’t meant as a dig toward pastors. It’s just that because of the level of training required to be a proficient mental health professional constitutes an entirely separate career path.
That being said, going to your pastor is a good place to start. If your pastor has been to seminary, he likely does have some training in pastoral counseling to go along with his wealth of biblical wisdom.
He can pray with you, help you assess whether you need further help, and he likely has a list of mental health professionals that he trusts and to whom he can refer you.
In fact, inviting pastoral leaders and other trusted spiritual advisers to come alongside you in your mental health journey is an incredibly healthy practice.
These confidants can pray alongside you, help you evaluate your treatment options, and process with you everything you are learning about yourself in the context of an environment saturated with biblical wisdom, Christian fellowship, and authentic friendship the way God intended it.
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Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.