I want to talk a little about the problem that many Christians have with going to counseling. I know that it exists because I have been reading a book for a Bible study I’m leading where the author strongly discourages going to any mental health therapist that is not a Christian counselor. She even said “The Holy Spirit is the best psychiatrist ever.” This line of thinking is unfortunately misinformed about what mental health therapy is, and that misunderstanding can be very dangerous.
To help describe this concept that is stigmatized in many Christian circles, I want to talk about my son, Titus. Titus was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate.
Besides the initial cosmetic issues, this defect causes great problems with speech. Reconstructive surgeries are ideally done before they really begin to speak so they don’t have difficulties forming certain sounds. Titus had these surgeries, but they were complicated and not entirely successful. As a result, Titus kept nasalizing his front sounds past his third birthday. To be able to function in his life, he had to develop other ways of making sounds to be understood.
For example, one of the front sounds that Titus couldn’t make was the “s” sound. Instead, he made an “s”ish sound from the side of his mouth (try to make “shl” out of the side of your mouth. That’s what it sounds like). This was very adaptive for him as he could make an s-like sound be understood enough. But when he got his prosthetic palate, his goals needed to change from being understood to being accepted. So that shloshy sound was not helping him achieve his goals any more.
This is why I am so thankful that he has a good speech-language pathologist. She was able to listen to the sounds he made and, with her knowledge about speech as well as prosthetic palates, create tasks that would help him practice making sounds in a safe environment that were more likely to help him achieve his goals. Once a week, he goes to speech therapy and practices his “s” sounds while playing a game.
I think many people do not realize how close speech therapy is to mental health therapy. Both therapists listen to what was adaptive in the non-ideal environment, identify what is maladaptive for current goals, and creates a safe space to practice skills that will help clients get where they want to go. Not a whole lot threatening about that, is there?
Now, I don’t know if Titus’s speech therapist is a Christian. Would I like my son to see a Christian therapist? I guess. But what is more important to me is that it is someone who can help him get better. You see, I think that the skills and knowledge to help anyone get better come directly from the Great Physician, whether or not they acknowledge Him (I also think all beauty and artistry comes from the Creator, whether or not they say “Jesus” anywhere in it). So while I like surrounding my family with Christians, I would not deny him speech therapy because his therapist made choices that didn’t glorify God. Nor would I bypass this skilled person and instead rely on someone who was good at praying to help him learn to make sounds. You might be surprised that I have been given this option. A well-meaning gentleman followed me around the hardware store pleading with me to take Titus to a faith healer or he’d be bullied his whole life.
I think many times we mystify our brains over other parts of our body. That’s what makes mental health a “spiritual problem” while speech is a physical problem (regardless of how often scripture speaks of our speech or tongue). However, the truth is our brains are physical parts of us that can be developed, strengthened, and changed. Just like Titus is training his tongue to make “s” in the front of his mouth by building the muscles that will do that, we can train our brains to respond differently to things in our lives. It doesn’t happen magically- it requires practice.
My husband gives the analogy of a road. Our repeated thoughts and behaviors form paths (technically neuropathways, but let’s think more like the paths that college students make when they cut through the grass instead of taking the sidewalk). Whatever paths we go down get better established and easier to go on. During stressful times, we may have to take a different way in order to accomplish our immediate goal (for instance, being hyper-attentive to details to make sure the child with a birth defect gets enough calories). As we go down that road over and over, it becomes the one that is maintained and easiest to go down, basically like a highway. While working in our stress, it may hinder us when the stressor is removed. We may have lost the road that takes us to our major goals. Sometimes we need help realizing that the road we traveled during our stress time doesn’t need to be utilized any more. Sometimes we need help finding the road we want to be on (that has become overgrown from disuse). Sometimes we need a safe space to practice going on that road of thought or behavior again. These are the sorts of things that mental health therapists are trained to do. They can help you identify the roads you take that don’t lead where you want to go and help you develop new roads. This healing is always done with the help of the Holy Spirit, whether or not the therapist acknowledges it.
I would like to end with saying that I by no means think that God can’t heal you of your mental illness without a trained therapist. He may also miraculously allow Titus to wake up tomorrow speaking clearly. I absolutely will not limit the Holy Spirit’s power. However, I fear that we often limit His ability to enact healing in our lives by dictating what that healing has to look like. Just like if you refuse to see an oncologist because you are trusting God to heal you, your health may get very very bad (even terminal) if you refuse to see a psychologist because you want prayer to be enough. Most of the miraculous healing I’ve seen God do have been under the care of trained professionals. How I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work more often is to give us the grace to glorify God even with our infirmities. I think God wants me to give my child the opportunity He’s given us to work with a speech therapist. And I think He wants many of His children to work with a mental health therapist, even if it is not one that will call on His name.