Ten years is a long time to carry a heavy heart, but I did. And I know I am not alone. Each year, 19 million Americans and 121 million people, worldwide, struggle with some form of depression. For a few, it may be so constant they accept it as normal or part of their personality, and join the 80 percent who never seek specific treatment.
It took me a long time to find the courage to sort out my sadness through talk therapy. Even though I wholeheartedly believed in its benefit, somewhere along the way I’d been shamed by the message that counseling is for weak and faithless Christians. I know I am not alone in this skewed thinking. According to a 2013 LifeWay Research survey, nearly half of self-identifying, evangelical Christians in America believe prayer and Bible study alone are sufficient to overcome serious emotional or psychological trauma, depression, or mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Some Christians may be hesitant to seek help outside church walls because they are unfamiliar with the mental health profession and its impact on their spiritual life. I sat down with Licensed Mental Health Counselor Molly Smith to address some of these common concerns. Smith works at The Front Porch counseling center in Mishawaka, Indiana.
First, why should someone consider speaking to a counselor over talking to friends or family?
There’s something really beneficial to getting an outside perspective. Proverbs 11:14 NKJV says “Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” There are many verses that speak of the benefit of having counselors. And if you go to a good counselor, you’ll be heard and experience safety and compassion. Not everyone gets that from friends and family. There’s also research that shows if you recall painful memories in the presence of a safe listener, the memories get stored in the brain differently—a little more healed.
What are some reasons people might be resistant to visiting a counselor?
As therapists, we often hear things like, “Dwelling in the past isn’t healthy or beneficial” or the classic, ”All you’ll do is analyze me.” Often, I think people associate seeing a counselor with having a mental illness, and that those who don’t have a psychotic disorder or severe trauma don’t need counseling.
To your point, I have heard people say “only crazy people need counseling.” Can you tell me about other areas where counseling might be beneficial?
The most common reason people come to me is to talk about their relationships—with parents, spouses, children, grandchildren, etc. This makes sense because we’re all in relationships. God designed us to be attached to people in healthy ways, but what did sin do when it entered the world? It disconnected our relationship with God, so of course we experience difficulty in our human relationships, too. Research shows a break in an important relationship can lead to dysfunctional relational patterns. Often, trauma or clinical depression are tied with fears of being abandoned or the loss of an important relationship. The beauty is, Jesus came to restore the relationship between him and us. And he’s at work today in our human relationships, too. Entering into a therapeutic relationship with a mental health professional can help us gain skills and tools to have better, healthier relationships.
What would you say to someone who tells you their church/family believes the Bible is the only resource we need for dealing with our problems, and modern psychology theories are unbiblical?
One of my counseling professors used to say, “The Bible is sufficient, but not exhaustive.” There are topics it doesn’t specifically speak about. Of course, there are warped places in modern psychology. But there are warped places in art, in business, in medicine, in government, too. I think God gives us insight into understanding the deeper parts of humanity in order to help heal us from harm and the many effects of sin. This also allows us to experience emotional and spiritual freedom. I think a lot of things in modern psychology (which I believe God has allowed humans to discover) can be used for his purposes, just like art, business, medicine, and government can, as well.
Another common concern I’ve heard in Christian circles is, “I think I need counseling, but I feel that means I am not a good enough Christian or my faith is weak.”
There is no shame in having needs. I believe it takes a great deal of courage to ask for help. We’re often afraid to admit the areas in our lives where we need to grow, because we don’t know how others will respond to us. Especially if we’ve grown up with the idea that to need is to be weak. There are times when our faith is weak, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have faith. Having the vulnerability and humility to admit we need help is a beautiful thing, and Jesus is OK with our weakness. He came to heal the needy and the sick. He sat with those in need. And God will meet us in our places of need, too, opening a relationship with him in a new and deeper way.
Are you saying counseling could potentially enhance our spiritual lives?
I see many things discovered in modern medicine and psychology through the lens of Scripture. The more I learn about the body and mind, and how it is literally wired to connect with other beings, the more I understand how, as the Psalm says, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14). God wired us to know him, and connecting with him—understanding how he loves us and accepts us, helps us grow—is the best and healthiest thing for every part of our well-being.
What do you think about the idea that depression is a spiritual problem, stemming from un-repented sin?
I am not going to say depression never results from a spiritual issue, but that is largely not the common root of depression. Research shows there can be imbalances in our brains that can cause moodiness, anxiety or depression. I would also explore if a person has suffered a recent or significant loss in their life, such as a job or a relationship. The reality is, we live in a fallen world, and we are going to experience sadness. Jesus was a sinless man, but even he cried and felt grief.
What are some warning signs of depression and anxiety?
Depression and anxiety often appear together. Watch for changes in everyday habits, such as sleep and appetite: are you having difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much? Are you eating more than normal, or not feeling hungry? Other signs include crying often or for no apparent reason, irritability, extended periods of sadness, not enjoying things you typically enjoy, feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness, hopelessness, and, lastly, thoughts of suicide or frequent thoughts about death.
Do you have any tips and resources to help someone find a counseling relationship?
One of the best ways is by word of mouth. Ask a friend or a pastor for a referral. Churches often have referral lists. You can also visit FocusontheFamily.com for a database of Christian therapists across the country. I always encourage people to know they’re not tied down to a therapist. You may not connect with the first one you meet with, and that’s OK and normal. You don’t have to try to make it work; it is perfectly acceptable to request another therapist.
How have you personally observed or experienced the benefits of counseling?
I had someone mention the other day how counseling helped her be brave. I know that I feel more understood, more empowered, braver, and that my ability to implement healthy relational skills is strengthened. I also have a better, kinder, and more compassionate view of myself. And when you have a good therapist who connects with you, who supports you and encourages you to heal, they’re insight becomes a part of you. Even when you’re not with them in person, you still know they’re cheering you on, and that is incredibly empowering and encouraging.