Christianity and mental health

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Recently Voddie Baucham, a respected homeschool leader, preached a sermon in his church on mental illness. (Here is the transcript, thanks to R L Stollar, who also wrote an analysis of the sermon.) I normally avoid evangelicals teaching about mental illness. I’ve been too screwed over, too hurt, too much more damaged when trying to seek help from them. I’d rather just avoid that conversation, because I’m still too raw. I don’t put myself into places where I have to expose a vulnerable part of myself to unsympathetic people.

What I’ve realized, though, is that to constantly stay silent in this area caters to both the power of the abuser and the pain of the abused. If I do not speak up, can I really be angry that only a brave few are calling these people out on their words?

I have a long and messy mental health history, including: hospitalization, treatment, antipsychotics, antidepressants, nouthetic counseling, secular counseling…you name it. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety (those, along with PTSD, are the only ones that actually held water). I have a lot of shame about this, and rarely talk about it. I am well aware that it could affect my chances of working where I want to work or applying to residencies and programs. I don’t know how much it will limit me, but there is a chance. For all of these reasons, I choose to keep silent for the most part when there are discussions about mental illness and the church. I’m tired of being silent, though.

My first experience with counseling was when I was 16. I was a cutter, I had suicide ideation and an eating disorder, and I had depression and anxiety. The first counselor my parents took me to was a nouthetic counselor. (For those unfamiliar with the term, it is basically just a counselor that uses the Bible above all else, scorning secular psychology.) My counselor did, to her credit, completely discredit all secular psychology–at least at first. She did, however, use several questionable practices. She refused to keep confidentiality, relaying to my parents anything I said. She was highly codependent, allowing me to overstay my sessions and including me in her family’s life. She overshared her personal life. These were merely bad counseling practices, unethical as a matter of fact.

What was more insidious, and more dangerous, was her twisted ways of mixing the Bible with her counseling. She was the first person that I disclosed my sexual abuse to. While she originally seemed non-condemnatory and affirming, she soon began to twist her words. She began to tell me I had to forgive my rapist, to confess my sin in the matter (I was five when it happened, not that age matters). The “bible study” homework that she gave me increasingly focused on my attitudes and actions. I was told that if I received negative attention in the future, it would be due to the fact that I had sexual fantasies and read erotica. My questioning of my sexuality was immediately rebuffed. I was criticized for letting my “trauma” influence my worldview. I was required to report on the contents of my counseling sessions to my parents, not that it mattered, as they already got emails after almost every session with the details.

I spent a few months in a treatment center when my self-destructive coping mechanisms got to be too much to deal with. By the grace of all that is above, I ended up in an amazing, secular center. I heard truth about recovery, trauma, and abuse. Without going into details, I will say that it was a one of a kind education in mental health and wellness, and how to deal with trauma. I left it with the tools to build a healthier, happier, safer, and saner life.

But after leaving, I still had to fight my demons. I still struggled with shame that I had to take meds. I felt guilty that I chose to stop going to church, even as I knew it was the right decision for me. I faced judgment from my family. I eventually broke ties with that counselor for good, but even that left me with a nasty scar. I can’t discuss her much to this day. I keep that boundary for my own health.

Mental health treatment in the hands of unqualified people, especially Christians, is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Voddie Baucham is not even a counselor, but his words will hurt many people, and I am sure already have hurt those in his congregation that morning. I fully support a licensing system for mental health professionals, just like we have for medical professionals. You wouldn’t want anyone who called themselves a surgeon operating on your physical bodies, and you shouldn’t accept anyone who calls themselves a counselor tampering with your mind. It’s dangerous, and deadly. I tried to commit suicide because of the condemnatory messages I received from pastors, the nouthetic counselor, and other well-intentioned but misguided Christians.

We need to speak up. Mental health is still very much a stigmatized topic in this country, but it is exponentially more so in Christian circles. This prevents people from getting the help they need. Just this week, Leelah Alcorn committed suicide because her parents refused to accept her transgender identity and acknowledge or support her. Christian teachings on mental illness are actively harming people, actively leading to suicide, injury, and compounded illness. I could cry, or I could rage. I don’t know which I feel like doing. What I will continue to do is speak. I will not let my voice be silenced, and I will speak for the now-silent who could have had a chance for help if they had someone who listened to them and accepted them. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It can be treated, and there is help. And you don’t have to be a Christian to change someone’s life.

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