Reshaping the Church

Peace of mind: Christians working in mental health

Posted February 02, 2024

by Ozi Ojukwu

Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев for Unsplash

Editor’s note: Last names have been omitted to protect the individuals’ privacy.

What is the relationship between Christianity, psychology and mental health? Christians have historically been skeptical of the modern science of psychology and its applications to mental health. However, with the rise of the Christian counseling movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, Christians have entered fields ranging from professional counseling, psychology, marriage and family therapy, social work and psychiatry in droves, according to Concordia Journal.

The Christian counseling movement holds that Christians can treat people with mental and behavioral problems best by starting with a Christian view of the world and integrating the best of empirical psychological research into practice, according to scholars Timothy Clinton and George Ohlschlager.

Therapists working as Christians in the field provides opportunities to help people grow. When working with other Christians, Christian therapists may, although not always, provide opportunities for discipleship by discussing one’s experience of Christian faith.

Two Christians who work as licensed professional counselors are Kailey and Kayla. Over written interviews, they discussed their entry points and experiences within the field.

Photo by Micheile Henderson for Unsplash

Pursuing and Working In Mental Health

Personal experience motivated Kayla's decision to pursue a career in counseling. Interested in the mental health field from seventh grade onwards due to experiences being bullied, Kayla wrote she found a model in a guidance counselor who developed a warm rapport with her.

“She emulated who I wanted to be, and from then on I wanted to be a safe haven for people struggling,” Kayla wrote. Kayla graduated with her masters degree in 2022.

Similarly, Kailey's decision to become a therapist was also motivated by personal experience. In contrast to Kayla’s decision, however, Kailey's first choice in a career was not in the mental health field. Instead, she wanted to go to art school and medicine, and finally chose psychology.

“In high school, I took my first psychology class and also went through my first experience with depression,” Kailey wrote. “I resonated with understanding psychological concepts because it helped me to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings at the time. I felt like, as an introvert, I had discovered a field that would be a good fit to strengthen my skills with insight and communication.”

In addition, Kailey went to therapy during this time and in college, and such experiences helped her see what a good therapist was like.

Kailey pursued an undergraduate degree in psychology, and she learned about different career options within the field of psychology.

“Being a therapist is a popular choice because it presented more opportunities to work with different types of people,” Kailey wrote.

Even though Kailey had doubts about whether or not she would be a good therapist, she knew she wanted to help people, give them a safe space to share their heart and encourage positive change, she wrote.

As she went on to graduate school, Kailey trusted that God would help her through the difficulties and guide her steps along the way.

The goal of a counseling program is to prepare future therapists who can effectively help their clients promote positive mental health in their lives. When asked what a typical day in their lives as counselors was like, and which populations they saw, Kayla and Kailey gave diverse and complementary responses.

Specifically, Kayla works online during the beginning of the week, promoting access to care, and at the end of the week works from her office. While both work primarily with individual clients, including adults 18 and above, Kayla has worked with two types of group therapy: a divorce support group and a chronic illness group.

Kailey also works with teenagers. Her typical day starts with coffee, breakfast and time to pray to the Lord in the morning.

“To prepare for the work day, I will look at the clients I am meeting with during the day, review the previous notes [from prior sessions], and create a brief outline of a topic or intervention to go over with the client for their session,” Kailey wrote. “Of course, I may make an outline, but the client is free to share anything that is going on in their life.”

This work is influenced by Kayla's and Kailey's experiences of Christian faith.

Kayla wrote: “Being a Christian influences every area of my life, but especially with my work as a therapist I learned a new type of dependence on the Holy Spirit. I invite Him to guide me as I speak to clients and ask questions that will cause them to be inquisitive about themselves.

“I cannot do this work alone, why not learn from the greatest Counselor of all time? Being a Christian helps me recognize the responsibility the Lord gave me, and with it comes humility.”

Furthermore, “When you have a reassurance that God assigned every person to you for such a time as this, you walk with a different purpose,” Kayla wrote. “I recognize that I am never alone, I learn from the best.”

“I think that being a Christian influences my work as a therapist in the sense that I do my best to spend time with God each day,” Kailey wrote. “I take the time to make sure that I enter the office with a clear mind that is focused on serving my clients with integrity and purpose.”

Kailey does not necessarily discuss religion with her clients because of legal and ethical requirements, she wrote. However, she still enjoys worshiping the Lord and reading the Word on her time off.

“Christ is my source of strength and hope,” Kailey wrote.

Such legal and ethical requirements within the counseling profession provide an opportunity to discuss the relationship between Christianity, the state and mental health.

A Brief History of Psychology and Christianity

The history of psychology and Christianity is conflict-ridden, according to Scientific American. The conflict has existed between modernist and postmodernist nonreligious psychologists and psychiatrists and Christian leaders, including pastors who have held to a so-called fundamentalist worldview that asserts Chtistians should hold to only what is in the Bible.

Christians have been writing about psychological topics for hundreds of years from a philosophical standpoint, according to the book “Psychology and Christianity: Five Views.”

However, psychology as a social science is relatively modern. The discipline started in the 1870s when the German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt performed experiments on reaction times, according to Verywell Mind.

In 1879, Wundt opened the first psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig, cementing psychology as a scientific discipline separate from philosophy, according to Verywell Mind.

As a modern science, psychology was also influenced by the popular theory of evolution, which Charles Darwin propagated, according to Britannica. The theory of evolution of course conflicted with the idea of creation found in the Bible.

Another early psychological school was behaviorism, which suggested all behavior could be reduced to environmental conditioning. Reinforcements increased the likelihood of repeating behaviors, while punishments decreased it, according to Psychology Today. The theory conflicted with the idea of free will in Christian theology with immediate implications for such doctrines as that of sin and salvation.

Two antitheses of behaviorism are Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Roger's humanistic psychology, according to Verywell Mind and Simply Psychology respectively. The former asserted that behavior was driven by unconscious forces, and the latter placed human uniqueness at the forefront of the theory. And yet, these two fathers of modern psychology held ideas that conflicted with a Christian worldview.

Freud, an atheist Austrian Jew, believed that God was an infantile projection, a wish fulfillment of protection from a father figure, according to VeryWell Mind. Rogers, who grew up in a very strict Christian home, believed that direct experience is the highest authority in one's life and humanity is naturally good, according to The Person Centered Journal.

From these examples, it is not surprising that historically, some Christians have been skeptical about or resistant to the science of modern psychology. And yet, within modern history, one can see psychology and Christianity in dialogue with one another.

Christian counseling is an example of how Christianity and psychology can work together.

Photo by Aaron Burden for Unsplash

Christianity, Mental Health and Culture

Kayla and Kailey both related their work in mental healthcare to the process of renewing one’s mind with God’s word described in Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you therefore brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We renew our minds by the help of the Holy Spirit, who seeks to make us more like Christ (Philippians 1:6, 2:13).

“Jesus left believers with the Holy Spirit who is our Advocate and Counselor,” Kayla wrote. “This term is not new to God, which reinforces that it was not and is not a foreign concept to God. Throughout scripture God addresses mental health and gives practical tools ‘to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself [2 Corinthians 10:5],’”

“This parallels my style of therapy Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (one of the most common evidence based treatments). Thoughts affect emotions, which affect actions. What we give authority to matters. As Christians, we submit our thoughts to Christ and take those thoughts captive by changing them. In therapy my goal is to teach my clients to take those thoughts and challenge them,” Kayla wrote.

With a similar response, Kailey wrote, “Taking care of our mental health is similar to how believers in Christ guard their hearts or take care to renew their minds with God’s word.”

We have the choice to live our lives from God’s wisdom or worldly wisdom. However, because of the Fall and the existence of sin in the world, there will be times where we act emotionally, with deceitful hearts or with unwise advice, Kailey wrote.

It takes time to renew our minds and change these habits as believers because of sanctification.

“The same is true with our mental health in that it takes time to identify mental health concerns, have accountability, and treat the illness over time,” Kailey wrote.

Beyond comparing Christianity and mental health, Kayla and Kailey both suggested ways churches could actively promote mental health among their congregations. Such promotion would be considered an application of Christian counseling in the ecclesial context.

“Churches can normalize getting professional help,” Kayla wrote. “Professionals are trained to help and guide individuals at their most critical time of need. Just like how we encourage physical illnesses to be addressed by a doctor, it’s the same with mental health.”

Kailey suggested that churches could highlight faith-based mental health organizations or local organizations within their community. In addition, churches could also have an employed, Christian-based therapist on their staff to provide education on different mental health issues.

Finally, churches could provide volunteer opportunities for church members to be involved in mental health events or activities within their local community, Kailey wrote. . Such volunteer opportunities might include leading a support group or being a peer supporter for someone struggling with a mental health condition.

Both Kailey and Kayla provided practical advice for Christians seeking mental health services.

While therapists are trained to meet you where you are, without judgment, it may be helpful to look into faith-based organizations and other faith-adjacent resources for therapy, Kayla wrote.

Such resources might include a therapist that has experience with biblical counseling, someone that has education from a theological seminary or is open to exploring your faith background, Kailey wrote. More broadly, other important criteria to consider include years of experience, educational background, gender, therapeutic orientation, specialty and accepted insurance.

Furthermore, depending on the need, biblical counseling can also be helpful as it focuses on the discipleship of believers in the church, in relation to life problems, suffering and issues.

However, both serve different purposes, Kailey and Kayla wrote.

“Mental health counseling focuses on the treatment of mental health disorders and is considered a medical record because health insurance is billed for treatment,” Kailey wrote.

Biblical counseling might be used if the client is concerned with their faith walk, but it is not medical treatment, Kayla wrote.

Even though biblical counseling and mental health counseling have different purposes, both bear witness to the destigmatization efforts around mental health in society at large and Christian society in particular.

For example, online Christian media like the Instagram account Christians Who Curse Sometimes and The Pour Over newsletter promote discussions on mental health and provide practical mental health support for Christians respectively. The Pour Over has promoted resources like Faithful Counseling, which is online Christian counseling, and BetterHelp, partnering with the mainstream mental health organization to provide faith-based counseling for Christians.

“I love that we are breaking the stigma! It takes a lot of courage to start therapy, before that to even schedule an appointment, or tell a friend/family member that you are struggling,” Kayla wrote.

In a similar vein, Kailey wrote,

“I think there has been a big increase of people seeking out mental health care within the last 3-4 years due to the pandemic,” Kailey wrote. There are more positive conversations about encouraging other people to seek help and engage in local mental health awareness efforts.”

However, even though breaking stigmas around mental healthcare delivery has led to improved healthcare, there are negatives to the increased demand for services, which Kailey identified. 

“The increase also leads to burnout within the profession due to high demand and turnover rates. Even with the increase in services and knowledge of mental health, people still develop misconceptions about mental health or self-diagnose.” 

“Certain diagnoses have a greater social acceptance compared to other diagnoses,” including depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism and trauma, which tend to be commonly shown on TV, talked about by others, or written about in the media,” Kailey wrote.

This leads to an opportunity cost where other, more severe mental health disorders like psychosis or schizophrenia may not be talked enough about or shown in the media enough for them to be destigmatized, Kailey wrote.

“I think a lot of progress has been made with destigmatizing mental health, but I think that there are areas of improvements to be explored such as increasing community supports, psychoeducation, and correcting any misconceptions from media,” Kailey wrote.

Finally, when asked what encouragement they would give to the Christian struggling with their mental health, Kayla and Kailey gave hopeful words.

Kayla wrote, “My encouragement for any Christian struggling is to have faith that you can and will get better. I know there are moments when you are struggling to smile or even utter a prayer because life can feel so hopeless. But God can turn around any situation, welcome Him into every part of your day. He is not afraid of your emotions or questions, but welcomes you with open arms.”

“Also please ask for help, sometimes it can feel overwhelming because you may not be able to verbalize everything that you are feeling. Please be patient with yourself and allow others to help you. Seeking professional help is a brave step toward victory. I pray that as you read this you feel seen, heard, and loved because the Creator of the universe is on your side! No issue is too big, or too small and regardless of what anyone says you matter.”

Kailey wrote, “For a Christian who is struggling with their mental health, I would encourage them by saying that God sees you and He cares for you! God loves you and you are never alone because He promises to never leave you nor forsake you.”

“I also think that it’s helpful to have some Bible verses to pray or read. Some of my favorites include Psalm 18:1-3, Ephesians 3:16-19, Matthew 6:25-34, and Isaiah 40:31. It’s also important to talk to a friend or family member about what you are feeling to receive prayer and support.”

Christianity, psychology and mental health have had a unique and complex history, but therapists Kailey and Kayla show us it is possible to work in the field as Christians — and thus shine as a light so that all may see their good works and glorify their Father in Heaven as in Matthew 5:14-16.

Ozi (her name is pronounced like cozy) Ojukwu is a writer and a graduate student at Kent State University, pursuing her MPH in Health Policy and Management. A 2021 graduate of Cedarville University (BA honors psychology with a women's ministry minor), Ozi is a Nigerian American who writes to share truth and bring beauty into the world.