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How the Church can best help struggling couples

mental health
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Mental health crises are on the rise and people are suffering and seeking help now more than ever. For married couples, the pandemic has only added to the stress.  Whether it is abuse and trauma, sudden loss of a loved one, thoughts of suicide, onset of illness, a work-related crisis, infidelity, addictive behaviors, depression, or anxiety — many couples turn to their church community attempting to find help, healing, and restoration.

While it may be comforting to seek out help from a trustworthy pastor, layperson, or ministry leader, the reality is that faith leaders, though well-intentioned, are not equipped for treating mental health issues.

It is important to note that the church has played a vital role in my life and is to whom I owe so much of my spiritual journey. When I needed help, pastors and ministry leaders taught me about wholeness and guided me towards intimacy with Jesus. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons I pursued my purpose and became a licensed professional counselor.

However, after 15 years of providing psychotherapy and sitting across from the lost and hurting hearts of couples who had previously sought counseling from their church community, I’ve discovered a recurring theme in clinical practice among my clients: the counseling they have received has been damaging. This has included harmful and ill-advised counsel to treat mental health issues related to marriage, such as trauma, substance abuse, psychological disorders, emotional abuse, and mental illness, as well as taking advantage of a leadership position to exert hidden agendas through manipulation and control. It saddens my heart that my clients have been left feeling ashamed, judged, afraid, and confused by the community that was supposed to help them.

Why is this happening?

Part of the problem is that many in the church believe they are equipped to deal with incredibly complex psychological problems. The fact is that most pastors, laypeople, and ministry leaders have no clinical training on the brain, the nervous system, and the attachment system. Many have been serving for a long time, they have a good heart and a genuine desire to help those under their care, and likely offer much-needed healing prayer and spiritual direction.

However, using faith and prayer alone to deal with psychological disorders and mental health issues leaves a person at an extreme disadvantage, especially when that person really requires the treatment of a practicing clinician.

Think about it this way: pastors, faith leaders, or lay ministers would not treat cancer, or a broken arm, or provide medical consultation on an autoimmune disease. Yet, when it comes to emotional, relational, or mental health issues, some church and ministry leaders believe they know what treatment to provide and how to counsel people.

The greatest danger comes when they inappropriately use their authority to deal with the most intimate, nuanced, and vulnerable issues of the human heart and soul, especially in cases of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which one person attempts to control, intimidate, and manipulate another. Emotional abuse causes serious trauma and has a significant impact on a person’s emotional well-being and mental health.

In my clinical practice, I’ve observed that pastors and lay ministry leaders have largely been passive and quiet about acknowledging the legitimacy of emotional abuse, especially in marital relationships. Emotional abuse is not as apparent as physical abuse or blatant acts of infidelity. For instance, shaming might occur when a pastor or ministry leader tells the abused spouse, “God hates divorce” or “Divorce is a sin.” Concurrently, the truth is that God hates abuse as well.

In cases where the abusive spouse is unwilling to do the work to change their behavior, the abused spouse is told to try harder, pray unceasingly, or fight for the marriage – leaving him or her with feelings of guilt, abandonment, extreme self-doubt, and/or inadequacy.

The good news is that there is hope and a way to educate ministry leaders and pastors who are open and willing to partner with local professionals in the field of counseling, psychology, and psychiatry. Pastors and lay ministry leaders have established trust with so many couples under their care, therefore they are in a powerful position to recommend professional help and not put themselves or couples at risk for potential harm and/or compromising the scriptures by providing ill-advised counsel.

Further, more and more local churches have begun creating relationships with licensed counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists to refer people to when they are having marital struggles and are seeking help. There are also a growing number of professional counselors who offer faith-based counseling for those who are wanting to incorporate their faith in the process.

Healing, restoration, and transformation are the shared goals of both the church community and counseling fields. They should come together, such that their gifts and areas of expertise co-create lasting healing, transformation of marriages, and continue to be safe havens for the broken and lost by loving people unconditionally and providing hope.

Andrea Anderson Polk, LPC, NCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and author of The Cuckoo Syndrome: The Secret to Breaking Free from Unhealthy Relationships, Toxic Thinking, and Self-Sabotaging Behavior.

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