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Erasing the Stigma of Mental Health Problems in the Church

Image source: CBN News
Image source: CBN News

Before the pandemic, the number of Americans struggling with mental health issues including suicide was already high.  Now, two years later, the number of people suffering from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide is even greater than it was pre-pandemic.  

Mental health experts and Christians alike are taking a closer look at how to help people in the church address difficulties they may be experiencing with mental health issues.  

Dr. Thema Bryant, an ordained minister and clinical psychologist, knows firsthand how Christians can spiral into despair. 

"These things happen in the church," she told CBN News. 

In her book, Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self, Dr. Bryant describes overcoming her trauma from sexual assault while keeping her faith by using therapeutic approaches which she now shares with her own clients, including one of her favorites, dance therapy, which is similar to praise dance. 

"Some survivors get to a place where they hate their bodies because it's the place of the violation," she said, "but this is really a gift from God. And so to be able to reclaim it, to honor it, to move our bodies to dance to the glory of God, has been a wonderful part of my healing."

As President-Elect of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Bryant says the church needs to create a culture where people can admit they're struggling and seek help. 

"I know at my church tradition when people say, 'How are you?' the usual answer is, 'Blessed,' or, 'I'm blessed and highly favored,'  and so we want to get to a place where people can say 'I'm blessed and...' What is the rest of the story? What is the fuller story?"

The tide is starting to change. While more churches are signaling to their members that it's OK to struggle with mental health issues, some are taking it a step further by developing ministries to help people with these types of problems.

One example is at New Life Church in Virginia Beach. Cyrus Williams III, Ph.D., is a member of the church and also serves as a counselor at Rapha Counseling Services, a faith-based Christian Counseling practice. Rapha Counseling entered into a partnership with the church whereby Dr. Williams and his team treat people in the comfort of their own church building. 

"That's the unique part about it," he told CBN News, "We do the counseling here in the church. So we try to take away that stigma."

Demand is high, given the growing number of those struggling with depression and anxiety.

"And then we get into addiction counseling," Dr. Williams said. "We may go into trauma that people are dealing with, whether it's spiritual trauma, sexual trauma, any kind of violence, and then suicide is a big issue." 

While the counseling is affordable for many, the goal, Williams said, is to make it available for all who need it. 

"To get to a nominal pay, we need really donations for people to donate salaries," he said. "If we have money for salaries we could see so many more people." 

Pastor Tina Davis told CBN News after years of trying to normalize mental health struggles from the pulpit and erasing the shame often associated with these issues, the pastoral team wanted to do even more. 

"As pastors, we recognize we're not clinicians. We don't provide mental health care," she said. "But we do recognize that it is an essential part of being whole before the Lord. And so we want to partner with those who are professionals, just like we would partner with a doctor who is a professional at dealing with cancer or other sicknesses."

New Life also hosts mental health forums and seminars.

"We wanted to make sure our congregants, our leaders, were equipped to be able to recognize symptoms of people who were struggling with mental health issues and could then refer them or get them the help that they need," she said.

So while mental health problems within the church can still be considered taboo, more Christian leaders are trying to do away with the stigma so people can get the help they need. 

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