Last month I spoke on a panel of psychotherapists at a workshop about mental health, hosted by one of the nearby Adventist churches. It was a worthy topic that was perfect for Mental Health Awareness Month. As the program drew near the close, someone asked "how do you find a good psychotherapist?" The psychiatrist, the clinical counselor, and I, all offered suggestions. Then a sister from the audience came to the microphone. But before she asked her question, she offered a comment that, in addition to the suggestions offered by the professionals on the panel, one could look up sites that list Christian counselors. And she proceeded to offer the web address of one she knew about. I cringed. In the interest of time the panel answered the next question, but I regret not having taken the time to point out reasons why her well-intentioned suggestion was probably not the way to go.
First, I fully acknowledge the discomfort some Christians feel about seeking therapy at all. Some feel guilty about looking for mental health help because they feel its displaying doubt about God's healing power. Although we never take that stance when seeking cardiac or gynecology help, even though there are a lot more Biblical instances of miraculous pregnancies than mental health miracles, and even if you believe demonic possession = mental illness and count those miracles as demonic. But that's another article…
The other equally pervasive barrier to Christians taking advantage of mental health resources is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in therapy. Some Adventists point to Ellen White's warnings found in Ministry of Healing (and reprinted in numerous compilations) cautioning against yielding one's will to another and engaging in mesmerism (hypnotism) and psychology. Some also fear psychotherapists will try to impose their will and ungodly morals onto their patients.
These fears actually have some legitimate origins. In the 1800's mesmerism was a very popular component of psychological work. Hypnotism was practiced well into the 20th century. At the same time, Freud, Skinner, and others wanted to establish psychology as a "hard science" and eschewed any associations with spiritualism and pathologized religion. Furthermore, it was commonly taught that psychologists were akin to "secular priests" who had the obligation to impose their perspectives onto clients. But a lot has changed since then.
Today, your psychologist won't dangle a swinging pocket watch in front of you declaring that "you are getting sleepy". Long gone are the days when therapy clients reclined on a chaise rambling to a tight lipped cardigan-clad therapist scribbling on a legal pad. Therapy is more interactive. We don't use hypnosis anymore. And respecting the cultural and religious beliefs of clients isn't just taught in training, but is also built into the professional ethics codes of all psychotherapy fields. Not only is religion not pathologized, it is encouraged that therapists help clients use (the client's) religious coping as an appropriate part of the therapy process. Empirical research has repeatedly shown that religious people actually demonstrate better life quality – both physically and psychologically. Consequently faith has become an ally, not an enemy, of mental health.
In 1977, the Adventist church convened a study committee (oh, how we love those!) that reported on the changing nature of psychology. The committee acknowledged the accuracy of Ellen White's statement in her era, but recognized that psychology was far different 100 years later.
Despite this, people still have lingering doubts about going to psychologists. So if/when they bring themselves to concede the need for a mental health professional, they try to assuage their hesitancies by seeking a "Christian counselor". This is something seen within a variety of faith communities –not just Adventism. Numerous "societies" and "associations" of Christian counselors try to capitalize on these fears by advertising themselves as safe places for believers to find a therapist. But these lists aren't always properly vetted. Just like the term "personal trainer" or "life coach", there's no training or licensing necessary to appoint oneself a "counselor" or "therapist". So these sites often list individuals who have no qualifications besides paying the association fees to be listed. Someone needing help who enlists the services of these counselors might just luck out. But more often they aren't helped and are even harmed by people with no training and weird ideas. People in need have been subjected to destructive techniques that leave them emotionally and psychologically worse off. This doesn't mean every Christian counselor is bad, it just means that faith shouldn't be the sole criterion for choosing them.
It's important that any psychotherapist be an actual licensed professional (or a clinician in training working under the supervision and license of a professional). This means a licensed professional counselor (LPC or LCPC or LMHC), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), clinical psychologist, or psychiatrist. Does this mean that all licensed professionals are good? No. But at least they work by a code of ethics, use empirically based practices, and can be reported to their professional board in the case of malfeasance.
That doesn't mean that there's no place for life coaches etc. I actually know some really good life coaches. However, interestingly enough, they are also trained psychotherapists who got into coaching to focus on the scope of that field –which is not to provide psychotherapy. Life coaching is more directive. Life coaches are focused on goal achievement and helping people accomplish certain objectives. Sometimes these are professional goals, sometimes personal ones. This is different from therapy dealing with etiologies of emotional states, exploring healing from trauma, assessing pathology, or addressing mental health issues.
As you look for a professional it's important to know these differences. The same techniques used to find your physician can be used to find a psychotherapist: referrals from another health care provider, lists provided by insurance websites, word of mouth, and trial and error. And, just like with your physician, you may have to go to many people before you find someone you're comfortable with. Not finding a fit the first or second time doesn't mean you should give up! Your mental health is too important to not follow through. And it's also too important to entrust to just anyone – even if they are listed on a "Christian" website.
Pastor Courtney Ray finally gets to sleep again after successfully defending her dissertation for her PhD in Clinical Psychology.
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