Imagine walking into church and in the lobby, you see a sign-up area for getting a tooth extracted or a root canal. You go up to the counter to learn more and the pastor of Family Ministry says “Hi! Want to sign up to get your dental work done right here at church?!” You might be somewhat excited about this because you hate going to the dentist’s office so you ask more questions. The pastor assures you that even though a licensed dentist will not be actually performing your procedures, the church has a real dentist on staff. He has done training classes for some of the pastoral staff and a core group of peer leaders on how to take out teeth and perform other dentistry functions so have faith that you are in good hands. What?! Are they serious? Your interest in receiving dental care at church might be waning at this point. We could even exchange the dental service at church with cancer treatment. Instead of a dentist on staff teaching pastors and peer leaders to pull teeth, the oncologist that is employed by the church is showing people how to mix just the right chemical cocktails to treat a few well-known cancers. This way, the church can positively impact more people “for God” and hold a group class where everyone who has cancer can come, each get hooked up to a medication drip and the church is serving a great function, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture? It’s actually very scary, isn’t it?
Do these scenarios sound outrageous? They shouldn’t at all because this is precisely what is happening in churches regarding mental health. Open up some church bulletins and you might see classes offered such as “Freedom From Depression,” “Inner Healing From Anxiety” or “Learning to Stabilize Your Moods.” You see friend, there are church leaders across the country who have no formal training in mental health or how to recognize risks, and yet they are offering to treat mental illness. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are not just some fad words that should be taken lightly. I would imagine that the recent death of a beloved actor and comedian might have served as a spotlight for the general public that depression has at times very serious risk factors associated with it. Those of us who have made assessing, treating, diagnosing and evaluating mental health as our profession are reminded every day that depression can be dangerous.
Churches need to be taking mental health issues as serious as they would take physical health issues and stop advertising that they are equipped to treat these conditions.
In a church setting, where does the responsibility and liability fall when a dental extraction, chemo session, or depression treatment goes badly? I can guarantee you for those churches who are advertising they treat mental health conditions, if something goes wrong, church leadership will be very quick to point out they are in fact not licensed professional counselors. Back away, back away, back away. That’s what happens in churches when they overreach their skill set by offering to treat mental health issues and bad things happen. That’s just wrong. As licensed professional counselors, we can’t just wash our hands of a “mistake.”
With my own ears I have heard church staff members literally say “Why do people call the church office like we are some suicide hotline?!” Yep. My mouth dropped open too. Well, when churches advertise that they treat mental health issues, people are going to assume they treat mental health issues! It’s pretty simple actually.
What does a church do who genuinely want to help their congregation members live better lives and want to offer group classes in order to reach the most people? Call the classes something like “How To Enjoy Your Life More” or “Changing Thoughts Changes Feelings” or “Learning To Live Stress Free.” See, not one of those titles implies a treatment for a mental illness. Big difference. Churches should be a place for folks to gain Bible based encouragement of how to overcome life’s challenges. The moment church staff start to believe they can treat depression, anxiety or mood disorders, they might as well put up their booth for root canals and cancer treatment because they have gone too far.
What is my point of this blog? People who need help are getting hurt in churches that are trying to treat mental health issues with pastors and peer leaders who have no formal counseling education. It’s unethical.
I have no doubt that I will hear from people who have gone to a Freedom From Depression class or Inner Healing From Anxiety and they will tell me how much it changed their lives. I will not deny that some good truth is being shared in these sort of classes. The bottom line is that no church should be offering to treat depression or anxiety unless the leader of the group is a licensed professional and the group standards are those that meet ethical licensing guidelines.
Through the recent suicide of a famous actor, I hope that there is a collective understanding that mental illness should not be taken lightly. I hope churches across the country will start re-evaluating how they address these issues within their congregations because people are getting hurt by ill-equipped leaders. Those of us in the mental health profession see it on a regular basis. We see how people’s faith is called into question when they are dealing with depression, anxiety or even abuse.
We hear when people are told that if they are grateful enough, they won’t deal with depression.
We also see how inadequately trained leaders are digging through people’s personal history without the skill set to keep that history from imploding in on the person. Many individuals deal with trauma in their life story and untrained church leaders have absolutely no business unraveling hurts they do not know how to therapeutically manage.
We also see that people are advised to not take their medication because God will heal them. We see that spouses in unsafe homes are spiritually abused into staying where it is causing more emotional and physical harm. We are seeing it all because after folks leave a church class or pastor’s office and have been hurt, guess where they go next? Christian counselors who are trained professionals and can help put together the mess that has been created. We are hearing and seeing the aftermath.
Please know it is not escaping our notice.
Have you been hurt in a church setting regarding your own challenges with depression, anxiety, mood disorder or abuse? If so, what helped you move forward and not allow the wounding within the church to affect your relationship with God? Always remember that the works are men (or women) are very different than the grace, unconditional love and hope that are the promises of God.