Saturday, 28 April 2012

Warning - christian counselling can damage your health!

This week is mental health awareness week and Channel Four has been featuring different perspectives on mental health as part of those short Four Thought slots. This contribution by Malcom Bowden, an Evangelical christian who believes depression is "very deliberately decided" on by the sufferer and is about self-centeredness and self-pity. A "true" christian (whatever that is) would in his view never be depressed - he does actually say that!
This clip angered me, but on reflection I found it left me saddened and frustrated as well. Bowden represents all that I object to most about "christian" counselling. Firstly, it is very easy for anyone to set themselves up as a self-appointed expert in areas of mental health. In some christian counselling, especially from a fundamentalist christian perspective, a lot of ignorance and assumptions based on religious ideology underpin the approach. The bible has much to offer us in terms of wisdom and perception, but it cannot be applied as a science textbook or a substitute for proper medical and  psychiatric knowledge or training. Some christian counselling and ministry relies on ideas about demon possession which belong firmly in the dark ages.
Secondly, what masquerades as christian ministry is often a form of emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse. I do believe that a fair amount of christian counselling is about controlling other people and exerting power over them.  There may be a disproportionate emphasis on certain concepts - such as the imperative to immediately forgive others or a focus, as in Bowden's approach, on how the sinfulness of the person counselled led to their situation. I have not had christian counselling or therapy myself, but I have met those who have and heard some horror stories about how, if they did not respond as the counsellor required, they were told this was due to a lack of faith or a rebellion against God.
Bowden accuses the depressed  of being arrogant, proud and self centred. Is this true of depressed people? Well, if it is, I would say that it is no more true than it is of someone who is not depressed. Pride and self- obsession are common to most of us, including christian counsellors! It is true that people do need to engage with therapy in order for it to be successful and some individuals are not willing, or perhaps not able to do so, but those who are depressed are generally in need of help! To call depression inverted pride is not, I think, helpful, and it does run the danger of stigmatising those who suffer from mental health problems.
As someone who was sexually abused I briefly considered christian counselling, Thankfully, after a few enquiries and reading some materials, I decided against this. My secular counsellor treated me as an adult with dignity and respect. I never felt coerced or stereotyped. This gave me the confidence to truly explore and try to make sense of past experiences for myself and later to understand what had happened through the lens of my faith as well. I am sure that there are good christian counsellors, but I am afraid that I am probably a bit prejudiced and would never, never go for specifically “christian” counselling for anything like abuse, trauma, sexual issues or depression - in fact, not for anything. My advice is to steer clear and IF you go to any counsellor of whatever ilk and feel you are not treated with dignity – leave! One in three of us suffer from some kind of mental health problem at some point in our lives and deserve proper and professional treatment, not to be damaged at the hands of those who are themselves arrogant, ignorant and egotistical.


  1. This is pretty shocking and I had no idea things were so bad. I had always assumed that Christian counsellors are trained therapists who happend to be Christian and who offered a Christian framework for some of the issues explored in counselling - just like a good Spiritual Director does.

    I knew some could be a bit rigid and jugdemental but this is truly horrendous.

  2. I do know a counsellor who is a christian who would I know would be excellent, Erika. I am a little biased - but on the more fundamentalist evangelical wing there are some horror stories.

  3. Horrifying and depressing.

  4. If I delve a full quarter century into my memory, I arrive at a time when I found myself immersed in various species of Christian counselling. The first was fuelled by the Wimber heresy, that was at the time sweeping our conservative Evangelical church. There were a few little gaggles of (mainly) women who immersed themselves in the ministries of the Vine Fellowship – in addition to a ubiquitous liking for acrylic tanktops, corduroy skirts and TradeFair coffee. At the time I was theologically naive and didn’t realise that much of what I was exploring was in effect White Magic – a cause and effort world that ignored the triumph of the Cross and reduced the Bible to a kind of sanctified Tarot pack. Words of wisdom were often Bible verses quoted out of context – the main idol of worship was the ‘self’ – and one was encouraged to idolise a ‘self’ without fault or blemish or troubling foibles and believe this is what God wanted. When in reality this ‘self’ was just the old self without the bits we didn’t happen to like about ourselves. This is not a Christian worldview, but rather a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) form of self-obsession and idolatry.

    Now, 26 years on, I think, as your post above hints at, that what we’re really talking about here, is what it means to be a Christian and the effectiveness of Christianity to change an individual’s life. I find arguments such as ‘God heals through medicine/counselling/psychiatry...’ rather lame. In effect this argument is basically saying God didn’t give a toss about the sick, the broken or the mad before the advent of modern medicine in the latter part of the 19th century. Is what the Bible says true or not?

    ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.’ Jn 14:12

    ‘And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’ Mark 16: 17&18

    Yet again and again Christians want their cake and eat it. This is particularly true when it comes to some of our conservative friends. Either the promises in the Bible are true or they are not. Hence in a curious way I rather admire Christians who put their money where their mouths are. And while I take on board your comments about the unscrupulous, the self-seeking and the downright deceitful charlatans who claim they are doing God’s will as Christian counsellors, there is the awkward question that faith raises: where does my trust and my hope lie? The reality for many is in hedging their bets. Few are likely to rely on prayer when they get sick – or if they do, it is coupled with modern medicine – despite what the Bible says about the ability of Christians to heal. Few will accept illness as God’s plan for them. God’s plans – as far as many individuals are concerned – tend to have a spooky resemblance to what they themselves think is best for themselves. The benevolence of God when it comes to both physical and mental health, is often rooted in humanity’s ingenuity rather than divine intervention.

    Personally, having had more hands laid on me than the Leveson Enquiry Bible, and as one who has endured many a Christian ‘counselling’ session, you’re probably better with a qualified professional – though even among these you need to pick carefully. I just don’t get this idea that anything with the appellation ‘Christian’ is inherently ‘better’ than secular or mainstream services – there is no evidence for this what so ever. There are Christian saints and there are Christian shits – as there are good and bad doctors. The attachment of ‘Christian’ to anything is no guarantee of its quality, suitability or integrity.

  5. There will always be those for and against anything. For the author to suggest that truth is only truth when it is private is very strange. Anyone reading the opening salvo of this article should recognise that the author is biasing his comments on relativeity. It has never been proven scientifically the cause of many a disorder, and mind you, medical treatment for depression induces side effects which are manic or suicidal.

  6. Even if there are some who doesn't believe that Christian counseling works, it has long been proven that there are some people who have been so much better after a number of sessions with trust in both the counselor and their faith.