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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Book Review: A Minor, by Margaret Philbrick

Margaret Philbrick’s recently-released book, A Minor, provides an intimate view into the life of a prodigious classical musician in love with an older, married woman (his piano teacher) who is suffering from early-onset dementia. Margaret’s knowledge of music and her ability to authentically voice the emotions of an angst-ridden teenaged boy are impressive, as is the way she has knit the viewpoint of a variety of players into her novel. Her character-types are wide ranging, and she handles each masterfully.

The protagonist of A Minor is the young Clive Serkin, a soon-to-be world renown pianist of the highest magnitude. Clive, however, is not just a musician: he is a teenaged boy in love with his piano teacher, Clare Cardiff, who just so happens to be old enough to be his mother, married, and falling victim to dementia. If that weren’t complicated enough, there are also issues such as faith, coming of age, familial relationships, an abusive marriage, and mental health to contend with. The complexities are many, and the reader may find herself wondering just how Margaret will manage to tie it all together at the end.

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but I will say that I was pleased that Margaret did not fall into the trap of a tidy ending. The reader will be satisfied by A Minor’s conclusion, that’s true, but she will also be left contemplating the questions Margaret raises throughout the book.

Some of these questions will pertain to faith as Margaret weaves both Judaism and Christianity into what I expected to be a “Christian only” novel. Each religion is handled with love, respect, and understanding, and adds depth to each character and causes the reader to reflect on how our faith is, should be, or could be applied to our daily lives and decision-making processes.

Also adding depth is the way Margaret has used a work of fiction to bring such an important topic to light: music therapy.

I am a proponent of medication where medication is needed, but also an advocate for exploring complimentary or alternative modes of therapeutic intervention. I have seldom seen this subject be so integral to a book’s plot (treating dementia), and the through line of music’s importance to our emotional well-being is, I think, unique.

That said, one does not need to be a classical musician, or even a lover of music, to appreciate this book; a reader can find other means by which to buy into the young protagonist. But, if you are a lover of classical music, then you’re in luck—the novel comes with a soundtrack! It’s well worth a listen, and will help you appreciate Margaret’s fine work all the more.

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Book Review: Listening for the Light

Tallman, Laurna. Listening for the Light: A New Perspective of Integration Disorder in Dyslexic Syndrome, Schizophrenia, Bipolarity, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Substance Abuse. Marmora: Northern Light Books, 2010. Print.

Listening for the Light (LFTL) by Laurna Tallman is a case study of one family’s experience with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and substance addiction, among other illnesses. LFTL was originally published in 2009; however, it is not widely known, nor has it been widely reviewed, and despite the passage of four years, its content remains relevant.

Tallman begins by meticulously describing the stressors she and her family faced over a span of several years: Tallman and her husband both suffered from CFS, four of her five children had varying degrees of physical or mental illness, and one child was severely dyslexic. The family also contended with poverty, broken school systems, dysfunctional communities, and even murder.

It is against this backdrop that Tallman and her husband decided to use a monetary gift to send their son, Daniel, to Toronto’s Listening Centre, so he could get help for his dyslexia. The Listening Centre uses a “listening training program” to help people with a variety of issues, including dyslexia and autism. While at the Listening Centre with her son, Tallman briefly received her own listening training, which greatly alleviated her CFS symptoms. Daniel achieved great success as well; however, shortly after his Listening Centre experience, he suffered from a psychotic break and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Up until this point of the book, Tallman’s prose has been largely poetic. Indeed, in addition to her academic work, Tallman is also a poet and artist, and her talent shines through:

“On a warm afternoon at the end of the summer I had left the kitchen to rest on the steps of the stoop…. I climbed the steep bank and stepped through the shadow… across the slippery loose hay and began to speak.”

Whether intentional or not, Tallman’s poetic style has a pleasing effect that helps offset the at-times disturbingly sad and chaotic vignettes of a highly stressed household.

Shortly after describing Daniel’s breakdown, Tallman demonstrates her wide-ranging writing skill by transitioning in style from poetic recitation to medical case study.

She painstakingly outlines the treatment both she and Daniel received at The Listening Centre, then walks the reader through how this experience, combined with her study of medical and scientific literature, led her to undertake an investigation into the healing powers of music.

She concludes that “…dyslexic syndrome, psychosis, and a number of other mental disabilities or instabilities appear all to be related to auditory-processing deficits and to fall on specific places along a comprehensive continuum of ear-related forms of mental function that includes the range of normal, ” and that healing for dyslexia, CFS, various mental illnesses, and other forms of trauma can come through “wise use of music” and “listening retraining.” (p. 333) This is a vast oversimplification on my part; however, I am far from equipped to summarize all of Tallman’s findings.

Tallman’s writing is always enjoyable, but at times I found the subject matter too complex for my liberal arts understanding. I have a deep interest in the subject matter of LFTL, so it was worth it to me read and re-read passages, but for readers who are not so inclined, the middle of LFTL may be a bit much to plow through. Even if so, I still recommend reading at least the first and last of Tallman’s book, the former of which reads like a novel, and the latter of which summarizes findings in a more easily digestible format. The last chapter of the book also presents deep theological and sociological questions about how society does and should treat the mentally ill.

Tallman may disagree with my reading suggestion. In her introduction, she “craves the patience of those in positions of absolute power over their patients to listen to one story that may have enormous implications for their understanding differently the function of the brains of the spectrum and mental patients under their care and for considering revision in their modes of treatment.”

Indeed, I would take this further than Tallman, and add that those in the criminal justice and foster care systems would greatly benefit from reading this book and considering its implications for treatment and rehabilitation for the acts that lead clients to either system.

I would also beg those who choose to read this book to use patience to move past areas of potential disagreement, such as Tallman’s belief in the limited use of medications, that boys are unfairly treated by today’s classroom structures, faith-based references (though these are minimal and not at all taken into consideration in Tallman’s scientific research), and any other typically polemic area. These opinions are not relevant to Tallman’s findings, and can be glossed over to get to the end result (Tallman’s take on psychotropic medication perhaps being an exception to this).

End result: Listening for the Light is lengthy, and at times perhaps too complex for most lay people. It is also poetic, operatic, moving, and absolutely fascinating. Not to mention it is a book that could do great things for those suffering from mental illness. If you have a deep desire to explore options to fix our broken mental health system, this is a great place to start.

Related posts: Dual Diagnosis, When Christian Moms Get the Blues, Postpartum Depression: How My Church Helped and Yours Can, Too.

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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.

Week Links #7

Redbuds

Amy Simpson @ A Sista’s Journey: Troubled Minds and the Church’s Mission

Jen Pollock Michel: The Feel-Good Faith of Evangelicals

Ellen Painter Dollar: 5 Truths About Blogging (IMHO)

Women’s Words

Jen Hatmaker: It’s Time: A New Movement for Our Generation

Sarah Bessey @ SheLoves: In Which We are Reclaiming Feminism

Sarah Bessey: In Which [Loves Looks Like] Spinning Our Own Yarn

Chrissy Kelley @ Momastary: Not Your Typical Mom

Words for Thoughts

The Wartburg Watch 2013: Red Flags in the SBC’s Resolution Addressing Mental Health Challenges

Exodus International: I Am Sorry

Nadia Bolz-Weber: Sermon — Prayer, Actually — on Jesus Loving Us So Much He Wants to Throw Up

My Stuff

My favorite of the week: Doing the Unstuck

Week Links

Women’s Words:

Sarah Bessey: In Which They Are Overlooked in a Sea of Hipsters

Sarah Bessey: This is for the Day

Catherine Woodiwiss: In the Image of God: Sex, Power, and “Masculine” Christianity

Emily Maynard: I Don’t Want Kids

Words for Thought:

Rachel Pieh Jones: You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

Andrew Hanauer: Debt Forgiveness and Food for Crocodiles

Karen Yates: To Grieve is to Human

Jon Huckins: The Violence of Peacemaking

Abigail Rine: Why Some Evangelicals are Trying to Stop Obsessing Over Pre-Marital Sex

Mental Health Awareness Month

Brandi Grissom and Alana Rocha: With Consensus and Money, State Takes on Mental Health Care