Mental Illness, Biblical Counseling, and the Role of the Church: A Conversation with Alasdair Groves

Alasdair Groves is the Director of Counseling and a member of the faculty at Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) in New England. He has a passion to foster genuine relationships in the local church, especially through counseling and counseling training, and his hope is for a church-based movement toward providing robust, Biblical pastoral care.

Paraphrased, CCEF’s stated mission is to bring “Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.” Can you explain what this means and what it looks like in practice?

Good question. When we talk about bringing Christ to counseling, we mean that to counsel well is to take seriously that the Bible has the deepest, richest framework for all of life. Ultimately, whether we are dealing with schedule stresses or schizophrenia, Jesus is our only hope and the wisdom he gives must ground and direct all the help we give. This doesn’t mean that we never use Google calendars to help the disorganized or that we are against Prozac for someone who’s depressed. But it does mean we will counsel best when our goals and methods of helping people spring directly from Jesus’ goals and methods for helping people: relationship with, worship of and obedience to him.

In practice, bringing counseling to the church means equipping pastors to do rich, insightful, compassionate, and just pastoral care. It means training para-church counselors like me who work hand in hand with churches to care for congregants in the context of the community of Christ’s body rather than in an isolated corner of the congregant’s world. Finally, I think it means developing the best content we can on connecting problems in living to Christian faith. We want to influence the culture, both in the mental health world in general and in the church in particular, toward a higher view of how the Bible meets us in our times of greatest need with powerful, non-simplistic help.

With 1 in 4 Americans suffering from some form of mental illness, it only makes sense that the church would want to be on the forefront of providing mental health services to those in need. Why have so many churches been slow to provide these services, and what is CCEF doing to help those diagnosed with mental illness?

You can read the rest of the interview with Alasdair here.

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Guest Post: Postpartum Depression–How My Church Helped and Yours Can, Too.

Last week, I wrote an article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics about postpartum depression (PPD), and how the church can be at the front lines of reversing the stigma of PPD. Prior to forming an opinion and writing the article, I asked several Christian women if they thought “women who are heavily involved in the church would have an easier or harder time addressing their PPD?” One of the responses I received was the loveliest, best articulated take on PPD I’ve ever read. Completely honest, well-written, and, at times, hilarious. My friend has graciously allowed me to share her thoughts here, she asks only that she remain anonymous. So if you think you know the author, please no “outing” by name, or Facebook tagging. That said, we’d love non-tagged “shares,” “tweets,” and comments.  I’m sure you have a friend who needs to read this—please pass it along.


Postpartum Depression: How My Church Helped and Yours Can, Too.

By Julie C.

Before I address the question “Do you think women who are heavily involved in the church would have an easier or harder time addressing their PPD?,” I want to first address what I feel is the elephant in the room when it comes to postpartum depression:

What is it? What does it mean that I have or don’t have it?

Does it mean:

“I am having a hard time with the transition of being a professional to being at home with a screaming child for 24-hours a day with no family support. I’m really depressed. Is that postpartum depression?”

“Being a mom with a tiny baby isn’t as great as I thought it was going to be, and I have some regrets. Is that postpartum depression?

“I haven’t felt like myself for three years since I had my kids. Is that postpartum depression? Or is that just life?”

If we don’t actually feel like drowning our kids in a bathtub, many women can’t put a name on what they feel after they have children. The ridiculous “baby blues” moniker really doesn’t encompass the reality that women face as their hormones go haywire and their whole world changes overnight. There is a middle ground that isn’t addressed, and it is a failure of our entire community that it isn’t spoken about.

As Christians, we tend to look at our lives differently than those who have chosen a different path, but when we have problems such as PPD, I think our church- and hopefully Christ-focused lives can get off track. We think Christ alone can solve our problems, and when prayer isn’t enough, we feel we’ve failed. We don’t want to look like failures or people of little faith to others, so we suffer in silence. On a related but different topic, I had someone tell me that if I “just prayed more,” my mentally ill mother would be healed. The lesson I took from this was, “your Mom is sick because you aren’t praying for her enough and that is your fault.” This myopic view of faith in God prevents good people from seeking professional help and services because of shame. We feel, as “good” Christian men and women, we should be able to pray our way out of any trouble. ‘Our hope is set on God alone’—and when we aren’t healed, we feel we are being punished, ignored, or aren’t faithful enough. To seek help outside of prayer and the Bible is to go outside of faith and not rely on God’s wisdom.

In terms of women who are suffering with depression and other mental issues after childbirth, this is also relevant.

In Christian culture, motherhood is held up as one of the most important things you can accomplish. If we “fail” this rite of passage—if we don’t embrace it with abandon, bond with our children over board books of Noah while playing kids’ praise music 24/7, and feel that every iota of self has been happily fulfilled in the ultimate expression of womanliness: having children…well, we aren’t very good Christians. We guilt in silence. We apologize. We fake it.

Because of my previous experiences with my mother’s issues, I didn’t have the same qualms as others may about counseling after I had my first child. I just didn’t know if what I was experiencing WAS post-partum depression or just me being a terrible mother. I didn’t have a community of friends that also had children to talk it out with. I lived hundreds of miles away from family, and all of the discussions went like this:

“Mom, my kid has colic 8-10 hours a day, and I am exhausted and depressed”

“Wow honey, none of my children ever had that. Must be from your husband’s side of the family. You were such an angel. So easy.”

So, that was super helpful.

My friends stopped visiting because they didn’t have kids, and they didn’t know what to do about my unfriendly baby crying the entire visit. They were uncomfortable with me trying to explain how everything was different after having kids. I could see the gears in their heads turning as they thought, “it wouldn’t be like this” for them, as they watched me bounce my child and complain that I hadn’t had a shower in three days.

Things got weird with my husband. I cried a lot and didn’t know how to relate to him the same way, since I had no career, was alone all day and felt like I looked like a bloated manatee. When he came home he had to listen to a child scream for hours at a time, and I was already exhausted from a day of colicky crying, but didn’t want to burden my husband with her and take a break because I wanted to be a dutiful wife. We argued a lot, because that is what you do when there is a child crying all the time and you can’t stop it.

When the colic stopped, I thought I would be OK. But I wasn’t. I woke up with my teeth clenched, and had to get fitted for a mouth guard at night. I started getting chest pains. I felt keyed up and tense all the time, and I was never a tense person before children. I went off the birth control I was on in the hopes that it was the cause of my problems, and it helped some, but I was still tense and still not right. I couldn’t ever turn off the “mommy on the alert” button once it was turned on.

I had a second kid. No colic, but the same thing after I had her. She was 3 ½ before I felt like myself again, but still the anxiety and tense feeling never went away. She is 5, and I still struggle. I feel that something went haywire in my brain chemistry after I had children, and I will never be right again. Is that a form of PPD? Is it mental illness? What kind of label will doctors put on it, and what kinds of pharmaceuticals are they going to try to sell me for this new label?

Even now, I talk with women (sometimes even vaguely) about some of my struggles since I had my kids, and I feel them suddenly get very tight lipped about it. I feel they are thinking, “yep, she was one of the ones who wanted to drown her kids in the bathtub. So great I didn’t ever have any problems like THAT.” But I didn’t ever feel that way (not even for one second), and I want to educate people that it isn’t a black-and-white problem, and it doesn’t have to be shameful and behind the scenes. We all struggle to some degree, and some more so than others. But because we struggle doesn’t mean we’re nuts. We are good mothers, and we love our kids.

And then there are the Christian questions we all ask ourselves on top of the secular ones:

“Have I not prayed enough to be released from this burden?”

“What is God trying to teach me with this burden? If I learn it, can I be released from it? Why haven’t I learned it yet?”

“Am I being punished for something?”

“Does God even care for me if he can let this happen?”

I went to a Christian counselor to try to work on some of these questions and to try and figure out how to work through my anxiety and depression without drugs. I learned that I actually was pretty stable mentally, and that whatever was going on was probably chemical. I went to a great acupuncturist, and got some fantastic results.

(Note: using drugs for treatment of PPD may be a good choice for some women. I personally choose not to because my mother has prescription substance abuse problems, and I just can’t go there, unless it is a last-resort measure.)

But really, the best form of healing I received was my mom’s group at church, Mothers’ Council. We read books that have a Godly focus on motherhood and discuss them, but really, that wasn’t what helped. It was relationships. It was hearing from others—good Christian woman—that they too were having issues: with babies, with toddlers, with their husbands. My table group brought all those things from the shadows into the light and took away the shame and taboo of not being perfect. My table group reminded me that, like Peter and David, we all fail (and sometimes fabulously), but we can still have a whole heart for God that yearns to seek his face. We can go and seek our solutions and answers to our issues, with God and without stigma.

Christian women can be extremely hurtful in their vanity and pride and judgment, but in this case, these Christian women were being like Jesus—kind, welcoming, and truthful.

For women who may be suffering with PPD or any form of imbalance in between, some of the best medicine can be community—real community that embraces the people who are hurting and lifts up those to authority who have been through it and gained wisdom. Real community recognizes a woman struggling and finds a way to help. Real community brings meals to a new mom to check in, and actually talks with her. Real community talks about real challenges a new mom faces in our culture today with parenting and spouses. Real community knows that Christ is the center and the power in our lives, but knows that being a Christian doesn’t guarantee a worry-free existence. Real community takes the messed up ideas of our relationship with God, drags them out into the light, and sets them right.

With postpartum depression, isolation is the enemy. Real community is the way out, and we as Christians are commanded to “gather together” and to “encourage each other.” (Hebrews 10:24-25). What a perfect environment for healing for the broken, for the tired, for the depressed—and for those suffering with postpartum depression.

How has your faith helped–or hurt–your struggle after childbirth? With PPD? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

When Christian Moms Get the Blues

Today I am writing at Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics about factors that may increase the risk of postpartum mood disorders among women of faith, and what our places of worship can do to help those who suffer.

You can find the article here.