The crux of religion and mental health: The church often helps, sometimes hurts
The Gazette - 9/8/2019
“Pray harder,” Tracy Monteith heard from fellow church-goers, including her husband, a fledgling pastor, when the darkness of depression kept her from getting out of bed in the morning.
When hours would pass without Monteith accomplishing anything except turning on the television, and her four young children felt like a heavy burden, Monteith questioned her Christian faith.
Other worshipers told her she had nothing to be depressed about. Yet God did not seem to be answering her prayers to get better.
“If your prayer life is strong enough, you wouldn’t struggle with mental health,” people said to Monteith of Colorado Springs, co-author of the book, “True Blue: Living with Mental Illness in the Shadow of the Steeple.”
When she developed post-traumatic stress disorder after being raped and spiraled into full-blown psychosis, Monteith wondered, “Does the church even see me?”
Monteith’s story is familiar in that people with mental health concerns, seeking help, often turn to a faith leader first, according to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. But in doing so, they may not find what they need.
Some congregations are more prepared than others, offering one-on-one counseling, speakers and programs addressing specific issues, support groups and referrals. Others rely on faith alone to get people through their problems.
“The Church should be a place in which people can be honest about their needs without fear of condemnation or stigmatization,” said the Rev. Jeremiah Williamson, rector of Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs. “The Church should be a community that respects the dignity of each and every person and affirms the gifts of each member, including, of course, those who wrestle with mental illnesses.”
One in five Americans faces a mental health concern at some point, and new training programs throughout the Pikes Peak region are helping churches develop best practices.
A suicide-prevention task force out of the El Paso County Department of Public Health has faith-based members. A nonprofit organization, COS I Love You, invited 160 faith leaders to talk about the state of mental health last month.
“The good news is, they’re at the table,” said Carolena Guiral Steen, assistant superintendent in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12. “This has got to be a ‘we’ thing.”
'This is biochemical'
The tension that exists between religious beliefs and professional intervention can leave religious institutions ill-equipped to deal with the post-partum depression of a new mother, a psychotic breakdown of a longstanding business leader whose life has hit rock bottom or a teenager threatening suicide.
Faith communities in Colorado Springs, an epicenter for evangelical Christian ministry, are not doing a good job of lending support, said Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director of the Colorado Springs office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She spoke last month at a Gazette-sponsored Community Conversation on mental health and suicide prevention.
“People are pretty disappointed in turning to their churches,” Jarvis-Steinwert said. “We are a very faith-based community here in Colorado Springs, and yet people feel like they come up short when they turn to their faith community and ask for help.”
Too often, people who come to NAMI say, ‘‘I was told this was happening to me because I was not walking with God,” Jarvis-Steinwert said. “We hear that a lot. And we say, ‘No, this is biochemical. Your diagnosis has nothing to do with your relationship with God at this point.’”
An “either-or” situation can develop, a chasm between faith and professional mental health care, said Camille Harrison, a graduate student working on a master’s of divinity degree at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
“We don’t need to give up prayer and healing, but we need to add the ‘and’ and have both conversations,” Harrison said, referring to professional assistance from the therapeutic and medical fields. “It’s not one or the other but both.”
And pastors have an obligation to be honest about their limitations, said Williamson of Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.
“I am not a psychiatrist, so if there is an acute need, or a need beyond my expertise, I recommend a mental health professional,” he said. “What I can offer, as a pastor, is deep, attentive listening, spiritual counsel, guidance, prayer and, if necessary, the sacrament of reconciliation.”
By their nature, Christianity’s practices of prayer and meditation, contemplation and silence, the rhythm of worship, spiritual music, and “a supportive, loving community" all have the potential to improve an individual's mental and emotional health, Williamson said.
Suicide a "taboo" subject
Since the dawn of psychotherapy, some churches have held that mental problems represent sin or moral weakness and should be treated through prayer or greater devotion.
The local Calvary Worship Center on its website rejects “the incorporation of humanistic and secular psychology and philosophy into Biblical teaching.”
“While we respect our fellow believers who work in mental health-related fields, we believe that the central mission of the church is to proclaim God’s Word to a lost and hurting world … humanistic psychology and philosophy often do more harm than good, and people respond best when God’s Word is proclaimed in the power and love of the Holy Spirit.”
Many churches avoid delivering sermons or offering classes on mental health issues, including crises like suicides, according to a 2017 survey funded by Focus on the Family and conducted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Research.
“Suicide remains a taboo subject in many Protestant churches,” the study concluded, finding that:
• 80% of Protestant senior pastors believe their churches are equipped to intervene with someone who is threatening suicide.
• Only 4% of churchgoers who have lost someone to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.
• 55% of churchgoers who responded to the survey said people are more likely to gossip about a suicide than to help a victim’s family.
But some churches are venturing into the topic from the pulpit.
At the beginning of his sermon on the last Sunday in August, First Presbyterian Church Pastor Tim McConnell spoke of the devastating loss of a 13-year-old boy in the community who recently committed suicide.
“As a church, we want to weep with those who are weeping, mourn with those who are mourning, and we want to be praying,” McConnell told parishioners. “I want you to remember this is where we come when we’re hurting, when we’re needful, when we’re confused. This is where we come.”
People mistakenly think Christians don’t deal with mental health issues because they have God, said Monteith. "But the mentally ill are in our pews.”
Presence and empathy
Incorporating spirituality for people who desire that component can be “a very significant part” of mental health treatment, said Dr. Rick Athey, a board-certified psychiatrist for children and adults and a deacon at Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Colorado Springs.
“For people who are feeling angry or hopeless or helpless or suicidal, there’s an understanding God, there’s mercy, there’s healing, and those principles can help them heal, feel better or save their lives,” he said.
When Athey, one of El Paso County’s few psychiatrists who includes faith in therapy, was studying psychiatric medicine 35 years ago, the topic of faith rarely came up.
“In most training programs, there were things you never talked about; one was faith, the other was sex,” he said. “Now, talk of sexuality is rampant, and faith is still avoided in many circles.”
But there apparently is a growing nexus between mental health professionals and faith communities.
Peter Kuiper directed the Rapha faith-based in-patient treatment program at Cedar Springs Hospital until the mid-1990s, when insurance companies changed to a managed-care model that favors outpatient counseling. Kuiper now organizes monthly Christian Counselors' Fellowship gatherings at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. Typically, 60-70 people on Kuiper’s 400-person mailing list attend.
Fellowship members come from a variety of faith traditions and include pastors, pastoral counselors, licensed professional counselors and social workers, lay counselors and counseling students who work in churches and in private practice.
Members are involved in everything from suicide prevention to grief counseling, substance abuse and codependency.
“In the old days, there was a lot of stigma around getting counseling, but that stigma has largely gone away,” said Kuiper, who also runs CrossRoads Counseling of the Rockies in Buena Vista. “Many churches are very effective at helping those who are on a journey of healing, providing supportive communities that are beneficial — even vital — to people’s health.”
As an intern at the Colorado Springs office of NAMI, Harrison worked on creating a pilot program that launched last year to help faith communities handle mental health needs of members, based on a national model called “Bridges for Hope.”
The idea came out of a roundtable discussion at a mental health summit held in Colorado Springs several years ago.
The gist of it was that churches don’t know what to do in helping those experiencing mental health problems, and they’d like guidance from mental health professionals, said Velda Baker, who works as a Faith Community Nurse for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.
Baker has an office at Catholic Charities’ Marian House soup kitchen, is a visiting nurse for other clinics that serve indigent and impoverished clients, and she presents workshops for the community.
“Some pastors have master's of divinity degrees but their plates are full,” Baker said. “Other pastors don’t have any counseling or the education piece. Many people say their pastors said to pray harder, and they felt their faith was weak.”
There are more effective responses, religious leaders, staff and volunteers learn at workshops. Sessions include education on real-life scenarios, such as a homeless person walking into a church, questions, discussion and availability of community resources.
Baker’s father had a mental breakdown 30 years ago during a parish council meeting, and church members did what Harrison calls the best thing they can do — be a presence and provide empathy.
“There’s still a stigma around mental health because it’s complex and there’s a continuum,” said Harrison, who's studying to become a chaplain. “Churches, synagogues, mosques don’t have to fix anything — they can just come alongside and provide presence. They seem to have a hard time doing that.”
Faith can be part of treatment
After two weeks of being homeless, anyone is susceptible to developing mental instability, said Baker, who defines 99.99% of her clients — roughly 100 a month at the soup kitchen — as having mental challenges.
“People become homeless because of an illness or loss of job, and two weeks later, they have depression, anxiety, they hear voices because they’re not sleeping, they’re paranoid.”
In her 33 years of nursing, Baker, who received the Nightingale Award for Excellence in Nursing for her work in the Bridges for Hope program, has seen an evolution. Mental health is being talked about in church youth groups and at church fairs, for example.
“If we can help identify mental conditions and help churches walk alongside these people, maybe they won’t become homeless,” Baker said.
Along with helping soup kitchen clients obtain doctor’s appointments, medication, bus passes, food, housing and employment, Baker prays over the plan of care she and clients establish.
If someone says the railroad tracks have been looking inviting, she asks if they’ve sensed God in their journey and if they would like her to pray with them. Is there a psalm or verse that’s been helpful in their lives, perhaps? Or are they angry at God? Does God seem like a big black hole?
“God understands,” she said. “Just like a broken leg isn’t going to heal overnight, we have to pray their situation will subside.”
Baker regularly prays with client Ann Brooks, who, while moving to Colorado Springs from Texas, got in a car wreck, then arrived by bus with injuries and has been living on the streets for more than a month.
As Brooks figures out where to live, how to get a job and how to access medical care, Baker's prayers have encouraged Brooks “to move on and forgive,” she said.
“The prayers have helped me to deal with everything else, to heal and think straight and focus on the next steps,” Brooks said. “You can’t worry about the past.”
Healed by faith
With centuries of healing work in hospitals, prisons and among the poor, many Christian denominations provide faith-healing events for followers.
At one such recent healing prayer service, at a church that overlooks the city of Castle Rock, energy pulsated from a large crowd. Hope and excitement were in the air, as spiritual warfare was about to begin.
From parents toting sick babies to seniors hobbling behind walkers, all come to renounce physical, spiritual and emotional ailments in the name of Jesus and claim victory over their troubles.
Under the direction of the Rev. Greg Bramlage, a Catholic priest who conducts healing services, deliverance prayer and exorcisms for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, participants forsake arthritis, rotator cuff damage, aching knees, lung disease and other maladies.
They name their illnesses out loud en masse, then move their bodies in a manner to shake out pain.
“None of us are the healer — Jesus alone is the healer,” Bramlage calls out.
Worshipers read from a giant screen: “In the name of Jesus, I break the power and everything I have renounced. I command it to leave me now.”
Divine intervention doesn’t work by just reciting the words, says Bramlage, founder of the Missionaries of the New Evangelization, a nonprofit organization that’s building a healing prayer center in Larkspur.
“Your heart has to be all in.”
Afterward, some shed tears of joy and announce that their breathing has improved, swollen feet are normal again, back pain of six years has disappeared, a hurt toe no longer throbs.
“We believe most of what people are dealing with can be healed through prayer because we’ve seen too many stories,” Bramlage says.
That includes mental illness, for which Bramlage delves deeper, holding three-hour individual sessions to remove emotional blocks usually stemming from trauma.
Monica Hernandez, a 51-year-old homemaker and missionary from Centennial, says she was able to abandon her 14-year reliance on anti-depressants after meeting Bramlage and “knocking, seeking, asking” in prayer.
As people prayed over Hernandez during a healing session, she felt warmth surround her heart.
“It was incredible,” she said. “It was like something was being poured over my heart. I couldn’t believe it. I knew something had changed.”
When the prayer ended, the deep sorrow that had crippled Hernandez for most of her life was gone, she said. With her doctor’s guidance, she reduced her dosage of anti-depressants and has been off them for two years.
She considers herself cured of the affliction and now prays for healing with others.
“I tell my story to anyone who will listen,” Hernandez said. “There are so many people struggling with depression, anxiety, fear, PTSD, and they think it’s something they have to live with.
“I personally experienced God’s healing and the freedom that brings. I tell people, ‘Don’t give up.’”
Make counseling mainstream
A busy Colorado Springs counseling center has its roots in a mental health crisis of its founder.
Mark Mayfield’s first exposure to youth suicide came at age 12 when he attempted to take his own life, he said. Counseling helped this sensitive kid adjust and survive the incessant bullying he endured at school.
His second awakening was when he worked as a youth minister at a church in Breckenridge. After one adolescent in the group died by suicide and another overdosed on drugs, Mayfield realized how unprepared he was to help kids deal with mental health issues, so he earned a master’s degree in counseling from Denver Seminary, and a doctoral degree from another school.
Mayfield was working for AspenPointe as a clinical family therapist and at the Air Force Academy as a counselor and instructor when a rash of teen suicides hit El Paso County.
He founded Mayfield Counseling Centers in 2015 and later transformed the for-profit company into a tax-deductible nonprofit so it could solicit donations to provide free counseling to people who couldn’t afford it.
“I felt we shouldn’t be doing only face-to-face counseling sessions, but we needed to be out in the community engaging schools, the interfaith community and businesses and get us all on the same page."
Mayfield Counseling Centers engages the community through fundraisers, such as the Race for Hope event Sept. 14 at Overdrive Raceway. But the center’s biggest public outreach events have been annual Springs Mental Health Summits at New Life Church, which attracted some 400 attendees in 2017 and more than 700 last year.
This year’s summit will be held Nov. 2 at New Life Church, for pastors, helpers, counselors and parents who want in-depth training on mental health.
Churches battle substance abuse
Mac Owen’s substance abuse started at age 12 with marijuana and progressed to LSD before methamphetamine became his drug of choice.
“I was raised in a very dysfunctional family that I didn’t really like, but I saw another group of people having a blast, and that’s the people I wanted to identify with,” he said. “I thought that if I did these drugs I would be accepted, have a good time, and feel good.”
By his 20s, Owen was a meth addict. “I would go for weeks at a time without sleep, and I didn’t ever want to come down.”
Owen eventually found release from his addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery, a ministry from California’s Saddleback Church. Today, Owen is national director of Celebrate Recovery, which is used in 35,000 churches nationwide.
The main difference between AA and CR is that “in CR we identify our Higher Power,” Owen says. CR groups address more than substance abuse: “CR is for anybody with a hurt, habit or hang-up.”
Half a dozen churches in the Pikes Peak region host CR groups: Village Seven Presbyterian Church, Springs Community Church, Pikes Peak Christian Church, Meridian Point Church, St. Victor Catholic Church in Victor and Impact Christian Church in Woodland Park, where Owen is an elder.
“Instead of telling people who struggle with addiction or mental health issues that they’re just not praying enough, believing enough or studying their Bibles enough, we want the message to be that we’re humans, we struggle and we need to help each other,” Owen said.
“Instead of a church saying you’ve got a problem, get out of here, we don’t want to see you anymore, churches learn to say you have a problem, and we’re not sure what to do, but we want you to stay here with us and we’ll do anything we can to help you.”
Issue touches all faiths
Some faith communities are advanced in addressing mental health and others are just beginning. Temple Beit Torah, a Reform synagogue in Colorado Springs, doesn’t offer any programs or resources — but is open to the possibility, said Rabbi Iah Pillsbury, who recently moved to Colorado Springs from Ohio to lead the congregation.
“All of us struggle with mental health,” she said. “Life’s just hard, and it’s a spectrum. The more we talk about these things and destigmatize and normalize the fact that everyone struggles, the more we can help each other.”
Followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refer to Jesus as the Great Physician and have a wealth of resources at their fingertips, including individual counseling, said David McConkie, president of the Colorado Springs East Stake, one of five Mormon stakes in the city with about 3,200 members, and 15,000 citywide.
“We teach and believe that Jesus Christ has suffered for every affliction, for every illness, including infirmities of the mind, and we believe healing is available through him,” said McConkie. “We realize there are situations that call for the need of professional help.
"We know that we can’t fix everything, but we do believe that through loving and listening and caring for every individual that we can do a lot.”
Muslims face many expectations. Suicide is forbidden, one of many rules of behavior, manners, ethics and morals in the practice of Islam, which “if observed,” keep believers away “from mental stress and conflicts,” said Arshad Yousufi, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs. Believers are “encouraged to be rational, learn to control their emotions and develop self-restraint” in working to ward off mental decline.
There’s a waiting list for Bramlage’s healing programs through Missionaries of the New Evangelization. Dire cases rise to the top. Some people seek deliverance from demonic or evil spirits. Exorcism — a prayer ritual to expel the supernatural — is a last-case resort and rare, the priest says.
Demonic influences, which the priest calls “demonic oppression,” meaning an evil spirit is pressing upon some part of a person, can be present in mental illnesses such as paranoia or schizophrenia, he said. “Many times the connection to a person’s past or a relative’s past — that anger or fear has brought this on."
When faith alone cannot heal, Bramlage says he refers people to a psychiatrist his team works with.
Feeling left out or behind
Some link more incidents of anxiety, depression, opioid abuse and suicidal inclinations with the growing number of people who believe in “nothing in particular.” One in five Americans falls into that category, according to the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a Harvard University-based biannual survey.
The “nones,” as they are called, indicate they also are disconnected from other foundations of communities, including engaging in the political process, volunteerism and higher education.
“I do wonder if deteriorating mental health is not linked to people who feel left out and left behind from society at large,” writes Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University and co-founder of Religion in Public.
The decline in religious identity has led many people to not understand that suffering — illness, grief, pain, all kinds of loss — is a necessary part of human life, Athey, the child and adult psychiatrist, contends.
“Our very existence requires the possibility of suffering,” he said. “It can be beneficial in some ways, in helping us turn to God in our suffering and weakness. Religion gives us hope and helps us get through.”
The sense of connectedness to others generated by involvement with a faith community can help people feel less lonely, said Dr. Neill Epperson, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Our world has become a lonelier world — we don’t join churches, synagogues or mosques as much or have group activities or that social support people used to have when we were less busy,” Epperson said.
But faith communities also have been known to shun people; those who violate church guidelines on sexual purity or who become pregnant often risk condemnation and exclusion.
The LGBTQ population often faces bullying, depression and suicidal ideation, said NAMI’s Jarvis-Steinwert.
Many LGBTQ folks have been wounded by religious experiences, said Sorin Thomas, founder and executive director of Queer Asterisk, which has offices in Denver, Boulder and Longmont.
As a result, they are fearful of seeking help with mental issues from faith-based programs, even if they grew up in a church.
Thomas, who educates groups on inclusivity, has observed religious centers and community offshoots “begin to open their doors and express welcome” to the LGBTQ community.
However, “There is a difference between being accepting and actually having the skills to follow through and be truly inclusive,” Thomas said.
When people are angry at God and don’t understand what’s happening and why they’re having significant problems, they can feel neglected by the very community they turn to for comfort, Athey said.
Some churches engage in what Kuiper calls “spiritual abuse.”
“There are churches I would classify as doing spiritual abuse when it comes to just throwing Bible verses at people’s problems or putting a spiritual frosting on issues that are much more serious than people are aware of,” said Kuiper, the Christian Counselors' Fellowship organizer. “When churches don’t operate from a loving, grace-oriented perspective, they can condemn people for their behaviors and choices rather than trying to understand them and care about them."
Said Monteith, the author who has grappled with depression all her life, “Churches need to be as Christ would be — accepting of all people and helpful.”
Throughout the years, whether she was at home, in counseling or in a psychiatric hospital, Monteith says she knew God was there.
“God made me this way for a reason,” she said. “I may not know what the reason is. God knows I struggle with mental health issues. Just knowing that helps me get through the day.”