BY GLORIA HUH

Beyond the noise of my heart pumping with excitement was a louder sound, an echoing of strong support that reverberated throughout the community when Open Door Presbyterian Church (ODPC) sponsored the Depression and Anxiety seminar. As curious attendees, even from neighboring churches, filled the seats, I could feel their anticipation. In the words of many attendees, this seminar acknowledged that mental health issues do exist in the church and that ODPC was doing something about it. Rather than the strong messages of old that tell struggling Christians to just pray more and be patient, the church was now recognizing that sometimes prayer was not enough and that seeking help was not blasphemous. The church is changing its mindset towards mental health and counseling and I like where it is headed.

Through my interactions with others at the seminar and church, I became more aware of the mental health concerns in our church community, such as depression, trauma, and interpersonal conflicts. Issues ran deep, having developed over a long period of time and so ingrained that there lacked an awareness of their severity. Sadly, most people did not seek help. Those who did seek help began their journey at the church either through pastoral or lay counseling. If deemed necessary, pastoral counselors referred some to Christian or non-Christian professional counseling outside of the church. Many found this process helpful, even life-saving for some. However, a few did not. They reported that there was too much of an emphasis on the spiritual aspect and not enough on their core issues. As a result, they sought professional counseling outside of the church on their own. There were also others who were skeptical about counseling, in general. They felt like they were talking in circles and did not see any improvement. Overall, there were mixed reviews on the benefits of counseling inside and outside of the church.

In addition to the benefits of counseling, what I found in my discussions was a divergence in what we would look for in a counselor. The deciding factor seemed to oscillate between prioritizing the skill of the counselor and whether he/she was Christian. On the one hand, those who would choose a Christian counselor explained that everything was a spiritual issue. They wanted a counselor who would incorporate the spiritual component into the counseling work. On the other hand, those who would prioritize skill-level preferred professional counselors who specialized in counseling regardless of their faith. Their reasoning was that professional counselors are trained to deal with mental health issues and that they could work out the spiritual component on their own. Because of these differing viewpoints, I realized the necessity of having both Christian and secular counselors to address the needs of our church.

In sum, the church is moving in the right direction. People are hurting, but only a small minority are seeking help. The verdict is still out on the helpfulness of counseling for some. Preferences dictate which counselors people choose if they even get to the point of actually seeking help.

My hope is that as the church continues to address mental health issues, more individuals who are struggling in their despair will break the silence and get the help they need.

It is my prayer that more people will trade in their empty smiles masking a deep pain for a temporary discomfort that is followed by a more lasting healing. And I will continue to do my part in trying my best to better serve our church regarding mental health. For that, I am thankful for the chance that ODPC has given me to serve in this capacity.

Gloria Huh is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland specializing in counseling psychology.  She regularly consults for ODPC’s Care Ministry and her seminar presentation is available online here and here;  please contact ODPC’s Care Ministry at care@odpcec.org for more information on depression and anxiety.

Image Source / Joanne Ku

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