God will often use another person to speak into our emotional suffering. This help may come in an informal conversation and/or prayer with a wise, trusted friend, a pastor, other leader, or in a small group. It may come in a more formal church confessional setting, as well. Some congregations offer peer counseling; trained listeners committed to discipleship such as Stephen Ministers (www.stephenministries.org) that may be of help to you if you’re dealing with issues like grief or regret.

Some are dealing with mental health issues that stretch beyond the scope of a caring peer, however. Depression, anxiety, addictions, the lingering effects of trauma, or a sense that you’re “stuck” and don’t quite know why may require the help of a skilled counselor.

Some Christians wonder if there is something wrong with their faith if they seek professional help. Recognizing our utter helplessness is at the core of our faith (Romans 3:22-26). When we admit we need God’s help, we are inviting our Healer to work in new ways in our lives (Matthew 9:12).

If you sense that you or someone else you know may need professional help in order to move toward wholeness, trying to figure out how and where to get started can be an overwhelming prospect. The information here is by no means comprehensive, but the Q and A’s below may serve as a launch pad to help you begin to explore the options available to you.

How can I find a good counselor?

Referrals are best. If you have friends who’ve used a counselor’s services, ask them. Most pastors keep the names of a few counselors on hand. Your insurance company may be a surprising source for referrals, as mental health counseling is covered under most plans. If there is a seminary in your area, you may find that contacting the school’s chaplain or department of pastoral care may be able to put you in touch with the names of some good local counselors as well.

What’s the difference between a Biblical (or Nouethic) counselor and a Christian counselor?

We often use words like “Biblical” and “Christian” interchangeably, so it is understandable that there might be confusion about the difference between the two when it comes to finding a counselor. However, “Biblical counseling” and Christian counseling (or counseling by a degreed, professional Christian) typically are two different things.

A Biblical counselor is someone who focuses solely on applying Bible passages to areas of sin. This type of counseling, also known as Nouethic counseling (from the Greek noutheteo, which means “to admonish”) eschews contemporary psychology, insisting that changed behavior will come solely as the truth of Scripture is applied by a person who is out of alignment with the Word of God. These types of counseling services are rarely covered by insurance, and there is no professional certification or oversight of those offering this service.

On the other hand, Christian counselors undergo the same type of training and licensure as their secular counterparts. The counselor’s goal is to support and strengthen a client as the client pursues his or her individual goals. While the Christian counselor’s faith shapes his or her approach to their work, they also avail themselves of the tools offered by academia as well. Some Christian counselors may include Scripture and prayer as part of a session with a client, other Christian counselors may not.

The services of a licensed counselor are covered by most insurance plans. You’ll want to check with your carrier for the particulars; you’ll also want to inquire with the counselor to find out if they’re a part of your insurance network. If you don’t have insurance, or if the therapist is not a part of your insurer’s network, he or she may be able to either work with your finances or refer you to someone who can.

There have been a couple of times in my life when I’ve experienced severe depression, and while applying Scripture, the listening ears of good friends and the prayers of others have all been helpful, the severity and duration of my depression called for the assistance of a trained, professional Christian counselor.

What if I can’t find a Christian counselor?

Many from conservative church backgrounds may worry that placing themselves in the hands of a non-Christian counselor may create spiritual conflict or that the counselor will not respect their faith. Or you may live in an area where there aren’t any Christian counselors from which to choose. Recognize that God can use a counselor who does not identify as a Christian. A good counselor is supposed to support you as you are, not try to “evangelize” you to his or her belief system. Pastor Adrian Warnock explained:

Secular counseling works at an altogether different level.  Accepting our brokenness, it tries to help us find strategies to get by in this difficult world.  Negative thought patterns are challenged.  Behaviors that make things worse for us are identified and addressed. Patterns in how we relate to others are discussed.  And sometimes, simply a safe place is created where we can be listened to as we speak about how difficult life has been for us……both Biblical help and psychological help can be very relevant to people.  Actually, sometimes psychological help will get us in a better position to be able to process and understand what the Bible says about our problems.

Whilst sin is ultimately at the root of all our problems, both physical and mental, it is not directly the cause of everything that goes wrong with us. So, most of the time Christians have no problem going to a doctor to help fix a broken leg.  Why then do we not like going to a psychologist or psychiatrist if we  have a broken mind and/or broken emotions?  Such secular help is often invaluable.[1]

 Asking a potential counselor about his or her approach to your faith is just as important as finding out about his or her experience with clients who have concerns or issues similar to yours, what his or her counseling philosophy is or whether he or she can work with your insurance plan.

Where can I find additional resources for myself or for someone I love who may be struggling with mental health issues?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a couple of resources you can use to begin your search for the help you or your loved one deserves:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – nami.org  –This grassroots organization is a clearinghouse for all kinds of information about mental illness, and offers free local family education, referrals and support. In addition, NAMI’s FaithNet arm is a helpful resource for church leaders who are looking for information about mental health issues in order to better serve their congregations.
  • The American Association of Christian Counselors offers a counselor locator.
  • Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay lost their son to suicide in 2013. The young man had struggled with mental illness throughout his life. Kay Warren has been on the front lines of the mental health discussion in this country for a number of years. Her website offers links to lots of helpful information.

I highly commend Amy Simpson’s excellent book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission to you. Simpson’s own experience growing up in a home with a parent diagnosed with schizophrenia and her caring, thoughtful research provide readers with a must-have resource that will help them learn more about mental illness, and how they can better care for those dealing with mental illness in their midst. (Your purchase using the link below helps support this website!)

This post was adapted from the appendix material in Michelle’s book, If Only: Letting Go of Regret. Cover photo by Quino Al on Unsplash.