In the Adventist Church the concept of mental health challenges or mental illness is sometimes seen as a lack of faith. Choosing to go to counseling or taking medication sometimes comes with negative connotations. We tell those who are struggling that prayers can cure us of our downcast mental state. It is said with the best of intentions—God is a God of miracles, after all. But the result is often doubt when those prayers aren’t answered in the way we think they should be. Am I not being faithful enough? Does God not love me? What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t God healing me? It can often spiral someone even deeper into depression.
I’d like to challenge the idea that mental health should be dealt with differently than physical health. We go to physicians and dentists on a regular basis for a checkup. We get blood tests and measurements to make sure we are healthy and to prevent any future health challenges down the road. Yet we view emotional and mental health very differently. Could we consider mental health care in a similar manner? If you’re not currently struggling, having a regular visit with a counselor could be viewed much like an annual physical or a biannual teeth cleaning. Sometimes it’s preventative. Sometimes counselors can help with tips and tricks to deal with the regular pressures of life. Sometimes they help you see and address unresolved trauma that will result in continued counseling sessions, just as getting a diagnosis for pneumonia might call for continued treatment.
There are many examples in the Bible of faithful people who were downcast. David, for instance, wrote dozens of psalms in which he cried to God in despair. In my own moments of depression and despair, David’s words have given me comfort. As human beings we feel things deeply. And, in conjunction with our relationship with God, it is OK to need help processing those feelings. Sometimes that can be a family member, a friend, or a pastor. And other times you might need someone neutral who can help you work through the complexities of the circumstances.
Learning Through Doing
After welcoming my first child in 2018, I deeply struggled with postpartum depression. I was vehemently opposed to getting help. I thought I should be able to do it all myself. When I finally realized that I was not OK, that I wasn’t getting better, I got on medication, and I visited with a therapist that our marriage counselor recommended.
I don’t even remember her name. I met with her twice—once for the intake appointment, and once for our first counseling appointment. I left the second appointment feeling worse than when I went in. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and looking back, I realize she was too eager to “fix” my problems and didn’t do enough listening. I needed to acknowledge, accept, and process my feelings before I could begin the work of healthier habits. She took my self-diagnosis at face value without fully investigating to determine if what I thought was the problem was really the problem.
It was challenging when, having finally acknowledged needing help, I met with someone who just wasn’t the right fit for me. She was a very nice person. We simply did not click the way you should with a counselor. It took me at least a month to try again. You see, when my doctor gave me a prescription for antidepressants, she also made me promise to go to counseling. And because I made that promise, I felt a responsibility to find someone. My first foray into individual counseling was unsuccessful, and I wanted to throw in the towel. Eventually, however, I gathered my courage for another attempt, and called my employer-provided counseling service. I asked for referrals to Christian counselors, and they gave me several names.
I ended up connecting with Heather. My heart pounded as I walked into the little waiting area outside her office. She was running late, and my anxiety started to spike. Her previous client departed, and she welcomed me inside. Heather was warm, encouraging, and kind. She started our session with an intake survey, something much more scientific than my last counselor. I loved it! We talked about why I was there, and she offered to pray for me. The experience was vastly different. I had an immediate connection to her. A sense of peace. Heather has been my counselor now for three years.
In my time with her, we discovered that my challenges were not just postpartum depression, but anxiety-driven depression. That discovery changed the way I viewed myself and set me on a path to significantly healthier patterns of behavior. Heather would challenge me on a variety of levels, including setting regular devotional times to meet and talk with Jesus. It was exactly what I needed, and I truly believe that God led me to her so that I could grow personally, professionally, and spiritually. I am forever grateful for my relationship with her.
Making Change Happen
Once I got comfortable with my regular counseling appointments, I would inform my assistant that I wasn’t available during certain times because I was going to my counseling session. I could tell that he felt a little uncomfortable with that knowledge, and I waited for him to talk to me about it. He later told me that at first it felt weird to be talking about it. Counseling was such a taboo topic somehow. Then he thought about it and decided that it shouldn’t be taboo. We ended up having some amazing conversations about counseling and how much it helped. It was so simple—just talking about my counseling sessions normalized the topic for both of us.
When the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our regular coping mechanisms were taken away. Things such as spending time with friends or family, exercising outside or at the gym, taking vacations, having breaks from our family when needed, making healthy choices related to eating—many of those things were no longer available to us. According to the World Health Organization, “global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent” during the first year of the pandemic.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control, not only did we see a steep incline in anxiety and depression, but the severity of anxiety and depression also increased significantly.2 We also saw a huge upswing in the rates of domestic violence and abuse during the pandemic, and rates globally increased by 25 to 33 percent.3 Finally, according to an article published on Forbes.com, adults receiving mental health treatment increased from 19.2 percent in 2019 to 21.6 percent in 2021, but approximately 42 percent of adults stated they couldn’t afford the treatment they needed.4
Human beings were made for connection. As the world became more connected globally (thank you, social media!), we also became more disconnected interpersonally. This created a major disparity between the natures we were created with and the societal norms around us.
God created Adam, and then created Eve so he would have a helper—someone to be with him. Woman was created taking a piece from man, and moving forward, man was created through woman (Gen. 2:18-24). We are completely and abundantly intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. We were created to live abundantly, to have full lives of joy and peace. Sin created separation between us and God, and from each other as well. It takes intentionality and work to create and maintain healthy relationships. And sometimes we need help to ensure that our lives are lived in fullness. Having a wonderful counselor can make a significant impact.
Consider what your thoughts are regarding mental health and mental illness. Is there someone in your sphere who is receiving counseling? If you don’t know, I would like to challenge you to find out. Go into conversations with an open heart and mind. Let’s normalize the concept of caring for our mental health just as we care for our physical health. Let’s talk about our experiences. Let’s start thinking about counseling as a normal, routine part of life. Let’s encourage each other to get annual mental health checkups. Let’s normalize “I was talking to my counselor the other day and . . .” Let’s create an environment in which we don’t feel judged for our emotional or spiritual challenges, but rather encouraged to carry and share each other’s burdens.