A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a group of nursing students about my life with faith and mental illness. I shared stories about having episodes, working through mental disorder, receiving support from friends and family. At the end of the session, one student asked a very thoughtful question:
“Has your faith influenced your choice of mental health care providers?”
I thought, what a great question! One I have given much thought to and never been able to talk about it in a group of this kind.
When I talk to many of my Christian friends who are in need of professional mental health care, they are often reluctant to pursue it. In large part, because they want to find providers who share their faith, their worldview. I can appreciate their hesitation. When it comes to something as crucial to our identity as our minds, we don’t want someone opposed to faith to combat it at our expense.
My response is more nuanced than “find a Christian psychiatrist,” or “find a Biblical counselor.” This may work well for some, but certainly not for many. For one, in my 25+ years seeing psychiatrists, I have only met one who identified himself as a Christian. For the most part, the subject doesn’t come up in the 15-30 minute session we get about 4-6 times a year. The focus of psychiatric/nurse practitioner sessions is about symptoms and medications. Just as the focus of an appointment with your surgeon is about the procedure. It is doubtful you would only accept surgeons who share your faith. Instead, you look at their medical credentials. You trust that if your surgeon is well trained and experienced, they will perform their job well. Then God will do the rest.
It’s more complicated with therapists. I have seen a wide array of therapists, with varying degrees of success. My first was a Lutheran minister. I’ve had a Methodist deacon. A Buddhist practitioner. A devout Hindi. And several who didn’t talk about their faith. Some of these have contributed to my psychological growth and others have challenged my Christian worldview. On the whole, I would say I have benefited from therapy much more than I have been harmed by it. And through it all, my faith has been made stronger.
Two things I have learned over my years journeying through mental health care. I need:
- Credentialed professionals with training and experience working with folks like me.
- Clinicians who respect my faith and recognize the role it plays in living with my mental illness.
When I moved to New York, I met with a therapist to discuss entering into a treatment relationship. I noticed that when I spoke in faith language natural for me, he cringed. I finally asked him about it. “Religion is, at its core, cognitive rigidity.” I told him his mind was a whole lot more closed than many humble Christians I’ve met. And I didn’t go back.
On the other hand, once I went to a therapist out of a sense of desperation. I hadn’t done my homework about his faith background or orientation. I just needed therapy and he was covered by my insurance. As it turned out, not only was he familiar with Scripture, he exhibited a profound spiritual maturity that helped sharpen my own faith. He read my book and asked very pertinent questions and made very relevant comments. I’m happy to say he is now my therapist and, Lord willing, will be for a long time.