Counseling prof: “Careful, compassionate” must characterize response to mental illness

Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in Springdale, Ark., and nominee for 2014 Southern Baptist Convention president, brought national attention to the issue of mental health in a motion he presented to convention messengers at last year’s annual meeting of the SBC in Houston.

The motion itself requested that each SBC entity include in its annual report to the convention an update on “what they have done, are doing, and will do annually, to assist people in our churches and communities who suffer with mental health issues.”

With the topic being introduced within the convention and the Executive Committee announcing its response to the motion, attention now turns to the various convictions, perspectives and interpretations held by Southern Baptists across the nation. In a genuine desire to handle the issue of mental illness compassionately and in accordance with the Bible, many will turn to the wisdom and advice of those who have devoted their lives to the study of the topic.

Frank Catanzaro, professor of counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, fields questions every day from Christians and non-Christians on what the Bible has to say about mental health. Having served as a missionary with the IMB, a minister in the church setting and a professor and associate dean in academia, Catanzaro has the advantage of having studied the counseling and mental health issue in depth and having interacted with it in daily ministry situations. 

In an interview with the TEXAN, Catanzaro emphasized the need for a better understanding of mental illness as Southern Baptists seek to respond to the motion brought before them. He said he would encourage Christians to handle the task with caution to ensure they do not unintentionally excuse behavior that can change with a biblical approach to counseling.

“The defining of mental illness can be subjective and difficult in nature,” Catanzaro explained. “The problem is, there really is no objective physiological anomaly that someone can point to with certainty to say, ‘Yes, this is an illness,’ like they can with something like diabetes. There’s nothing like that for depression or anxiety or fear. The difficulty is contained in the objectivity of the diagnostic criteria. Can I objectively state that every person who experiences depression, anxiety, fear or any other ‘diagnosable’ anomaly is in fact mentally ill? I believe that often we are too quick in making those diagnoses because of our desire to be helpful in a meaningful way and because of our fear of approaching those who suffer and exacerbating their problems.”

It’s a difficult ministry decision, he said, and one that requires careful handling.

“I appreciate what Floyd said in that he doesn’t want us to ostracize or set those people apart,” Catanzaro said. “I agree with him one hundred percent. We need to embrace people who struggle in these areas. But we’re not physicians, and we don’t deal with them in the same way physicians do.”

That is why, he said, it is vital that ministers have a good working relationship with medical doctors in their communities to whom they can defer when issues bleed over into their scope of training and expertise.

“There are physiological anomalies that can explain mood disorders that often go undetected,” Catanzaro said. “Two of these are thyroid conditions and blood sugar issues. These can cause depression, lethargy or manic episodes. These often undiagnosed conditions can be an explanation for what is commonly observed to be a ‘mood disorder’ and are often not explored before anti-depressants are prescribed. This is why as Christian counselors we need to rely on the medical professionals to rule these diagnoses in or out so that we can minister more intelligently to those who struggle rather than relying first on a diagnosis of mental illness.”

Although Floyd’s comments at the convention last year did not mention medicinal care for those struggling with mental illness, he did say that often their circumstances require “intervention,” noting that, “It is time now that the Southern Baptist Convention is on the front lines of the mental health challenges.”

Catanzaro expressed agreement with Floyd that more has to be done in ministering to people facing these types of challenges. Leaving the responsibility of medication to the medical field, Catanzaro talked about his approach as a counselor.

“I don’t deal with the medication, but what I do is I listen for unbiblical thinking, and I try to counter it with biblical truth,” he said. “I try to encourage people to think carefully about who they are in Christ. And the Bible teaches us very clearly that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Catanzaro said he often sees people misunderstand the issue and submit the care and cure of souls to the medical community. Some mental disorders are soul-based disorders, he said, explaining that many have characterized the fallen nature of humanity as illnesses.

In his comments at last year’s convention, Floyd quoted a tweet from Rick Warren, which said, “Why is it … if any other organ in your body breaks you get sympathy, but if your brain breaks, you get secrecy and shame?”

In response, Catanzaro said Christians should be the first to offer grace and readily share the burdens (Galatians 6:2) of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ instead of ostracizing them. He went on to emphasize the importance of letting the science of medicine treat quantifiable illnesses and letting biblical instruction and encouragement address the symptoms of a sin nature.

“If my pancreas is broken and I have a blood sugar issue—if that’s what you want to refer to as being broken—that is objectively diagnosable. You can’t do the same thing in the brain,” he explained. “We rarely have total confidence that we’re dealing with a broken brain. Possibly we just have broken thinking.”

The complexity of the entire issue, Catanzaro said, is evident in Allen Frances’ new book, “Saving Normal,” in which he addresses the danger of creating disorders out of normal human behavior.

“Dr. Frances is a psychiatrist and was the chair of the DSM-IV (the edition of the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ which preceded the current edition) task force,” Catanzaro said. “He represents a significant voice sounding the alarm relative to the difficulty in making an appropriate diagnosis. Of this complexity he wrote,

‘Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are the final result of an indescribably complex coordination of billions of cells firing off in a carefully tuned, exquisite equilibrium.’

“This statement causes me to think of ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14),” Catanzaro said. “For us to say that ‘this is a mental disorder’ or ‘that is a mental disorder’ may oversimplify the complexity of who God has caused us to be and might just overcomplicate our ministry to those who are in pain.”

—With additional reporting by Sharayah Colter, staff writer

TEXAN Correspondent
Rob Collingsworth
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