Counseling leaders say biblical connections key to mental, spiritual wellness

Counseling leaders say biblical friendships, churches helping each other key to navigating mental health issues

The state of addressing mental health-related issues is improving in our churches, but there’s still work to do. We asked some of the top counselors and Christian counseling directors in Texas to chime in on topics ranging from the stigma that can exist in the church regarding mental health and wellness, to how pastors can take steps to care for their own mental health, and what churches of any size can do to minister to others who are struggling.

Why is mental health an issue that should be addressed by the church? Why is there still a stigma attached to the issue of Christians struggling with their mental health?

The church should care for people struggling with anxiety, depression, and other struggles, because hope is desperately needed. True hope is found in God (Psalm 42). The church has an opportunity to share the gospel with non-Christians and show Christians how the gospel is relevant for our problems in life. Trusting God doesn’t mean problems will go away, but we can know joy and peace as we seek God’s perspective through Scripture and depend on the Spirit (Romans 12:2; Galatians 5:22). Our confidence in life is not in ourselves, but in God who created us and knows us more intimately than anyone else in the world (Psalm 139). 

Often, it’s hard for Christians to talk about their struggles because of shame and fear of man. Sometimes, it’s hard to share because we mistakenly believe that the Christian life means a happy life, at least on the outside. Church leaders promote transparency in the church when they acknowledge that the Christian life is hard and all Christians, including themselves, need God’s help on a daily basis. God also created us to be relational beings, meaning that we need fellowship with other godly people. 

Lilly Park, associate professor of Biblical Counseling, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Based on what you’re seeing professionally and gathering from colleagues and others, what impact has COVID had on mental health in the church?

I see a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety as the presenting problems especially since COVID. However, when I look a little deeper and explore a little further, I see something new and pervasive now more than ever and definitely since COVID. It’s loneliness. New research from Harvard suggests that social isolation is on the rise especially among older teens and young adults. Research from other sources suggests that most of us, over 60 percent, feel lonely. Prolonged use of social media was also linked to greater feelings of loneliness.

According to the American Psychological Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness has been linked to physical and mental health issues like diabetes, insomnia, depression, obesity, and premature death. It’s one thing to face depression and anxiety and other mental health challenges on a daily basis. It’s quite different to feel like you are all alone in the battle and that no one really cares.

Steve Hunter, professor and Hope for the Heart Chair of Biblical Counseling, Criswell College

The pandemic has been and still continues to be very difficult. Too many people hang on to every word that the mainstream media is putting out there. The mainstream media needs to up their ratings so, of course, they make it more exciting, but in turn it has ramped up anxiety in everyone, especially children. I also think that isolation contributes greatly to this issue. We are made to be in communion with God and with one another and sometimes it is just good to have interaction with someone in the flesh. One good thing that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did early in the pandemic was to allow virtual sessions in order to allow counselors to access their clients. Prior to this order very few counselors did virtual counseling, in fact some of our ethical codes forbid it. Although the governor opened the door for access to everyone, working with a child or teen online is next to impossible. Children typically express themselves more through play and teens hate discussing their issues online. I have wondered if their hate is more of a paranoia that someone is listening, especially their parents.

Sharon L. Good, LPC Superior, Christian Counselors of Texas treasurer

COVID has isolated people and that is never good for mental health. We are created to be with people. Upon God’s review of all he created in the Garden of Eden, the only thing that was “not good” was that man was alone, so he created Eve. Corporate worship is an even deeper level of person-to-person connection. While watching church from home is a “next best” way of going to church, it is a far-second-place substitute that does not replace corporate worship. As such, I see that people have struggled more in their faith and in their mental health. Even now, as we are increasingly back in church on Sunday mornings, I know a lot of people who struggle to come on Sunday because they are used to the convenience of watching from their living room couch, drinking their coffee, and in their PJs. 

Another aspect of COVID and the church is that the fear of getting COVID has created a lot of anxiety. This results in people staying home more, being more isolated, and then feeling more depressed. It becomes a downward cycle of mental unhealth.

— Audra Dahl, director of counseling, Rush Creek Counseling Center (Arlington)

Why do pastors still struggle with admitting their own mental health struggles, and what can the church and its leaders do to minister to them?

I have worked with pastors and the main reasons they don’t want to admit their own struggles with mental health is shame, embarrassment, and fear of losing their job. What I tell those pastors is that they are human and sometimes life just happens. Instead of living in fear, let their congregation know what is going on and trust that they will love and embrace their pastor. Churches can help by praying for their pastor (even if they aren’t struggling—I firmly believe that we should be praying for those that shepherd their flock). Next, take your pastor a meal once in a while. I’m sure his wife would appreciate a day off from cooking. If your pastor has kids, offer to babysit so mom and dad can go out on a date. A healthy marriage goes a long way to mental health. There are so many other ways that can help: take him out to a ballgame, give him an extra week off for vacation time (your pastor has been under intense pressure for the last two years due to COVID, bless him with time to relax), or just offer to hang out and fellowship with him.

Jonathan Okinaga, assistant professor of Biblical Counseling, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

I have been a pastor and a missionary. I think we have come a long way in getting the professional help we need, recognizing our limitations, sharing our own personal struggles, and seeking out biblical friendships with mature, same-sex Christians for the purpose of transparency, accountability, support, and encouragement outside of the context of our personal ministries. In addition, more than ever before, I am seeing more pastors and denominations publicly addressing mental health issues especially since COVID. It is a beautiful sight to see. For example, the SBTC is doing a great job in providing resources for pastors and their spouses during this difficult time. This includes financial help for counseling services. I have been honored to see the fruit of this ministry. At the same time, it is difficult for us as ministers to admit our own mental health challenges. One reason is because of unrealistic expectations, either self-imposed, perceived, or both ….

— Steve Hunter, professor and Hope for the Heart Chair of Biblical Counseling, Criswell College

What can churches do—especially smaller churches that don’t have trained counselors or counseling ministries—to address and minister to those struggling with their mental health?

It is important for churches to provide resources that address mental health concerns. This can come in many forms including: training church pastors and staff to be on the front lines of mental health needs while knowing their limitations in providing services; partnering with community mental health providers who can act as referral targets for needs requiring professional intervention or for guidance in cases where the church staff may need direction; establishing support groups that can encourage community for those dealing with potential triggers for mental health problems, such as caregivers for persons with longterm health care needs, substance use, grandparents parenting their grandchildren, domestic violence and sexual assault recovery, and many more; and partnering with larger churches who may have mental health services available and cooperate on publicizing those services throughout the community.

—Dr. Bobbie Burks, 4:13 Center for Change (Tyler)

There are great group programs that churches can do or partner with other churches that already have them. Celebrate Recovery, ReGeneration, Grief Share, and Divorce Care are just a few. These programs are run by lay people who have been through the program themselves and then are trained as leaders. At the Rush Creek Counseling Center, we have many churches who refer to our counseling services. Many of these churches also help their members in financial need by providing scholarships for counseling. But, more than anything, being willing to have the conversations in church, doing what you are doing by having the conversations in other media, starts to remove the stigma and can even help put someone on the path to healing.

—Audra Dahl, director of counseling, Rush Creek Counseling Center (Arlington)

What else can churches, church leaders, and denominations do to help?

I think one of the first steps and probably one of the most difficult steps is to begin to change the way our church culture views mental health disorders and issues. We could even begin by changing our language when it comes to mental health issues. For example, we can change our language from what we “can” do when it comes to mental health to what we “must” do. We can change our language from “addressing” and “helping” to “prioritizing” mental health as one of the major issues in Baptist life and leadership. 

— Steve Hunter, professor and Hope for the Heart Chair of Biblical Counseling, Criswell College

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Jayson Larson
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