The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, did something brave yesterday. To celebrate World Mental Health Day, he recorded a short video confessing a struggle with depression and a decision to get professional help. I say ‘confessing’ because that’s how many Christians would see it – that such a high-profile Christian leader should admit not only to depression but to ‘getting help’ would be seen by many as a spiritual failure.
During my years as a counsellor and therapist, it has not been at all unusual for church people to question the value of helping people with mental health. The extreme opponents of counselling would say things like: ‘Christians just need to pray about problems - prayer will have the same effect as counselling’ or ‘Reading the Bible offers all the help you need’.
I don't deny the importance of either prayer or Bible-reading. But as I read the Bible, I find that, even before the Fall, the first gift God gave to Adam was a human ‘help-meet’. From the beginning even perfect people needed somewhere to get help. Even now, many Christian communities are wonderful places for anyone who needs physical help and support. But when it comes to help with the spiritual or the psychological world, Christians are wary. We are ready to give advice and counsel to anyone – sometimes whether or not they are asking for it! But somehow, with psychological health, many of us fear that if we share our inner thoughts and feelings with anyone, we are likely to be manipulated and/or deceived.
What is behind this ‘help-shyness’? There seem to be a variety of factors. The first is a misunderstanding of the nature of the counselling relationship. Good counselling is never about giving people advice about what they ought to do but rather about offering support as they explore options. At the heart of training for counsellors is the principle of ‘respect for the client’s right to be self-governing’. Any counsellor or therapist who urges their own solutions is unprofessional and should be abandoned immediately.
Other factors influence Christian hesitation about getting psychological help. Although we do not always understand how, we are aware that the personal, the psychological and the spiritual do overlap. When difficult situations face us and there are complex decisions to be made, we feel vulnerable and indecisive. We recognise that false steps could land us in bigger trouble with worse situations to face, spiritually and psychologically. In our uncertainty, we are afraid of being misled by those who are cleverer or more experienced than themselves. So, we choose to stay in control of what is confusing and messy rather than make conditions worse. I may be feeling vulnerable but at least I can convince myself that I have some kind of control.
And so we arrive at the connection between faith and trust and control issues. Asking for help is about who we trust, who we really trust. In Christian circles, there is endless talk about trusting God. And when we are help-shy, we often claim that we trust God. But our actions suggest that we trust very few other people and we certainly don’t trust God to help us find trustworthy people.
The New Testament talks about the connection between loving people you have seen and loving God whom you have not seen. It describes those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, as liars. If you do not love a brother or sister whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen? Maybe the same applies to trust. If we Christians can’t trust ourselves or our God to find a single human mental-health professional whom we can see and trust, how can we begin to say that we trust a God whom we have not seen?