For all the talk about mental health that has become extremely prevalent in 2020, the conversation in faith groups can still be a little stilted. Most people understand, at this point, that acute anxiety is not a symptom on unrepentant sin and a good counselor can be an answer to — not a substitute for — prayer. But there are still a lot of questions about just how Christians should think about mental and emotional health, and what role healthy spirituality plays in a healthy interior life.
That’s a dynamic Brittney Moses is trying to change. This LA native has dedicated her life to transformation the intersection of mental health and faith. She’s working on her thesis at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and in the meantime, hosting a terrific podcast on the subject in addition to her website, which has all kinds of great resources.
This article is part of a fall wellness series RELEVANT is producing in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
She sat down with RELEVANT to talk more about her work, how spirituality is part of the mental health conversation and some practical tips for finding a good counselor.
Within the faith community, what are some of the most prominent misconceptions that you’d like to change?
There are two big things that come to mind. One: throughout the history of the church, we’ve had this 100% spiritual view about mental health. We think the symptoms of mental health are all spiritual issues, but the biggest thing I advocate is that we are biological, psychological, social, and spiritual human beings.
The second thing I like to really debunk is this idea that something must be wrong with you spiritually or morally if you are experiencing depression, anxiety or need to take medication. I think that comes from the assumption that good things must happen to people who do the right things and bad things must happen to people who don’t do the right things. It’s safe to just go, “Oh, you must be struggling with this because of a lack of faith or because you’re not in your Word enough or praying enough.”
Matthew 5:45 says “Rain falls on the just, and the unjust alike.” Jesus comes across the blind man in John 9, and they’re like, “Who sinned, rabbi? Him or his parents?” And Jesus says, “Nobody sinned. This happened so God may be glorified.” It’s a part of the human experience. It’s not always because of someone’s sin, but in fact, something that God will use through our humanity.
Clearly, spirituality has played an outsized role in the ways the Church has talked about mental health over the years, and we’re getting better at understanding the importance of science, therapy and medication. But what role does faith play?
I really do believe that the Church is a solution in our communities to the mental health crisis. Research for over 25 years has shown that when a person’s in psychological distress, they will go to their church. They will go to their clergy or their house of worship before they ever step foot to a mental health professional.
That’s why I’m so passionate about having conversations on equipping the Church with this, because that’s where people are going. I think there was a study done where they found that something like 59% of pastors had counseled someone who went on to receive an acute mental diagnosis. That means there was something more severe and persistent and it may have slipped right by the pastor.
I do think the Church plays a preventative role in being able to learn the basics and see when something more severe is going on that needs more help, and could be partnering with mental health professionals as a first response to that. Before we had institutionalized healthcare, the monasteries were converted into places of care where they took care of the travelers and the mentally and physically sick. The Church always had this community role in supporting those who were struggling or battling illness. I think that rings true today.
What are some practical tips for people who want to be good support systems and don’t want to be dismissive, but just don’t know how to enter in?
One of the first things a person can do is to educate themselves. If you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with bipolar or BPD or trauma PTSD, complex PTSD, educate yourself. What are some of the signs? Even ask the loved one, “What are some things that typically help you when you have an episode or when you’re in this place? What do you need?” I think it’s this whole approach of meeting people where they are is a really big one.
Being accountable to notice that something’s working in their life helps. Saying, for example, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been exercising lately and you seem like you’re doing a lot better. I just wanted to encourage you to keep on. I see you and I’m here for you.” That positive reinforcement is great.
If someone was physically sick, we might be like, “Hey, can I bring you food? Can I drive you to the doctor? What can I help you take care of?” Why don’t we treat mental health issues the same way? “Hey, can I bring you something to eat?” If they’re depressed and they just can’t seem to get out of bed, we can be like “Can I open your windows? Would you like me to drive you to your therapist appointment? Would you like me to help you set up an appointment with your therapist?”
How do you tell the difference between something that is part of taking care of yourself versus something that is just a coping mechanism?
In the beginning of this pandemic, I think a lot of us just felt unmotivated. A lot of us were a bit paralyzed by fear so we didn’t really know how to move through life. I gave into the Netflix binge and that pint of Ben and Jerry’s laying around. I was always telling people, “Have grace for how you’re coping right now and in your level of productivity.”
We’ve never been in a pandemic before. A lot of us are lacking social support, which our body biologically needs. We have biological mechanisms like mirror neurons and neuro chemicals that release upon healthy intimacy with other people that are meant to bond us into healthy attachments. The fact that we are feeling a little unhinged is totally normal. You’re not totally in your rhythm and you might be off or you might have one too many of this or that.
But if it’s persisting for over a month or you’re having more bad days or anxious days after that month, that might be a sign.
It’s never too early to get help. I encourage people to also use common sense wisdom. You actually know more about yourself than you may realize. If you notice that you’re not feeling good when you’re scrolling too much on Instagram or not getting sleep, try to tune into your own common sense wisdom to go, “OK. I notice that these things don’t help me. I feel worse when I do these things so maybe I should do less of these things and more of the things that aren’t naturally just boosting my mood and helping me out here.”
Do you have any advice for people who are totally new to the counseling game and don’t really know where to start?
Four things. First go through your health insurance. They should be able to give you a directory or partner you with someone who is in your area. You could even go to healthcare.gov to try to qualify for some assistance for coverage and go from there to look for mental healthcare.
Second, you can also go through your primary care physician. Just say, “Hey, I’m looking for more help mentally. Is there any way you could recommend me to someone maybe within the hospital or network?”
The third thing would be like online directories. Things like psychologytoday.com are great. They have hundreds of therapists on there, and you can filter it to your area. You can even filter it to a specific specialty, ethnicity or you can even filter for a Christian.
Lastly, would just be word of mouth. If you know someone maybe who has gone through therapy or even at your church. Sometimes they have people in the congregation who are mental health professionals that people underestimate.
It is almost like dating because you still have to get a feel for them. Try a few sessions, see if it’s a fit. But don’t be afraid to break it off if after a while it’s not a good fit and it’s not effective. It’s worth it to find someone to plant your feet with to begin the work. You have to put in a little bit of the work upfront, but it’s worth it in the end.
Do you recommend that people get a Christian counselor, if they are a Christian?
You do ideally want someone who comes from your worldview. I think that really does enhance the experience.
But also, I encourage people — especially if they’re having a severe mental health crisis like suicidality or psychosis, or you’re dissociating, hallucinating, having panic attacks or severe PTSD — any trained and competent therapist can help you work through that with evidence-based treatments. Even if they are not faith-based, you can still go to your church and compliment them with some of the more practical work that can take place. It’s better to get help, period, when it’s disabling your life than to just be like, “OK, I’m never going to get help unless they’re specifically Christian.” Even someone who has the skills, training and modalities can help you manage that. We should use all the tools that God has given us.