Dr. Jessica Johnson: Value of religion in therapy

In concluding with Part 2 from last week’s column, “Recognizing mental health’s value in church,” I want to share some final essential and helpful points that I received from this Bible study series taught by my pastor, Overseer S.D. Carter.

The first one is that mental illness is not the result of sin or punishment for it. Unfortunately, a damaging belief that has been perpetuated in some churches is that people who suffer with a mental illness have done something grave to “displease God.”

In one of our last mental health sessions, Carter focused on the story of how Jesus healed a blind man in the ninth chapter of the gospel of John. The blind man encountered the Lord as He was journeying from the Mount of Olives, and the disciples asked, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied that neither the man nor his parents had sinned to bring on this disability.

The footnote from the Amplified version of this verse states that it was “a commonly held belief” during this time “that suffering was punishment for a specific, personal sin.” Likewise, regarding mental illness, Carter emphasized that God is with us through every emotional struggle we face. He does not chastise us with mental anguish.

In providing examples of those in the Bible who were grappling with their mental health, Carter used several psalms of lament that King David wrote to illustrate how he was “going through,” as we often say today. This was an interesting take for me because in the past from reading the book of Psalms, I never really thought of David’s trials as a mental health issue in the context of how we presently discuss these problems.

For instance, in Psalm 25, which we covered in one of our last sessions, David cries out to God in misery for feeling lonely, scared and afflicted. He asks God to “guard (his) soul” and “bring (him) out of (his) distresses.” In Psalm 31, David expounds his feelings of sorrow, despair and stress due to enemies attempting to plot his demise but also expresses his continued trust in God, his “rock and fortress.” David went through grueling bouts of depression that reflect the mental torment many people wrestle with every day.

One of the major themes Carter wanted us to glean from our discussion on David was how “our soul operates on feelings.”

“We can’t see our soul, but we act out on how we are feeling within it,” Carter said. “Feelings of pain, anger and brokenness come from that war of our flesh that is manifested in the reactions of our soul.”

Carter further shared with me that more pastors must now direct significant attention and resources to mental health due to so many Christians who are suffering. As I was doing additional research on mental health and the church, I came across a proposal of David Rosmarin, a Harvard scholar who advocated the soul be reestablished as a focal point of psychology study.

Rosmarin, who is also the director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, expressed in a 2023 interview with CBC Radio-Canada’s Mary Hynes that therapists who are non-religious have been successful applying spiritual concepts in their treatment of patients. Rosmarin referred to this as “spiritually integrated psychotherapy.”

If more researchers begin to implement this approach, it should inspire more in communities of faith to be diligent in their mental health ministries.

I have been fortunate that I have not been ensnared with a serious mental health disorder, and as our mental health series ended at my church, I was even more thankful that I have a safe place where I can get help if I ever needed it. I am also grateful that I can lean on the promises of God for restoration when I am feeling low in spirit.

One scripture that comes to mind is 1 Peter 5:7, which urges us to cast all of our worries and concerns on God, who deeply cares for and watches over us.

For those of you reading this who attend church and are in therapy for mental health issues of anxiety, suicide, loneliness and depression, know that you have nothing to be ashamed about. And for those in therapy who have not considered a spiritual perspective, I encourage you to give God a chance and find rest, comfort and refuge for your soul.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.