Religious organizations were among the first to respond to the needs of communities at the start of the pandemic. Churches and nonprofits are largely focused on the physical and spiritual needs of people through ministries such as food distribution, rental assistance, and virtual worship services.
But the Christian community also believes it can play an effective role in helping another area: mental health.
The pandemic has taken a toll on people’s emotional health, and Christian therapist-based organizations say they are uniquely positioned to meet the growing need for mental health services. The organizations provide professional help to Christians and offer believers a safe space to share their theological doubts and frustrations.
Some faith-based counseling groups have seen a surge in the number of clients — many of them Christian, but not all — seeking help for a wide range of problems, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief and struggling marriages.
Generally speaking, Christian therapy takes an integrated approach to counseling by blending science with Scripture. Local therapists are adamant that the Christian approach to therapy is not forced upon the client and is only available at the client’s request.
Bishop Steve Wood of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant said it was important for pastors to understand their own limitations when it came to looking after the mental wellbeing of parishioners.
Wood admitted, for example, that despite being married for more than 30 years and raising four children, he is still not a professionally trained family therapist. Thus St. Andrew’s has developed relationships with local Christian counseling organizations so that it can refer parishioners in need of professional help. Churches and mental health workers need to work hand in hand, he said.
“As a pastor, I can give some advice,” Wood said. “But I was trained in the Bible and theology, not counseling. . . . I think good therapy combined with good pastoral care can provide many opportunities for healing.”
At Mount Pleasant-based Life Resources, psychologists, social workers and licensed professional counselors combine “the best of science” with the gospel, said Executive Director Jackie Atkins. This involves examining each person’s specific situation to see what the individual needs, Atkins said.
Often, prayer and meditation around relevant verses are helpful solutions, she said. But prayer must be fused with evidence-based decisions drawn from the counselor’s professional field of study, Atkins said.
“We don’t believe in ‘just pray this verse and your depression will go away,'” she said. “This is not us. It really takes a holistic approach.”
Health care organizations are expanding to meet the growing need for mental health services.
Life Resources added a branch in North Charleston and used an $11,000 grant from the South Carolina Medical Society to provide continuing education for therapists. Charleston Christian Counseling, which has locations in West Ashley and Goose Creek, recently added five therapists to its staff to meet growing demand.
In recent years, studies have shed light on the impact of the pandemic on mental health. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that younger adults, racial minorities, essential workers, and unpaid elderly caregivers reported having disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and increased suicidal ideation .
Young people were particularly vulnerable. In March, the CDC shared that more than a third of high school students said they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Life Resources, more teens are seeking professional help that gives them an opportunity to express doubts about their faith and question why God allowed the pandemic, Atkins said.
“We have the opportunity as integrative therapists to help (teenagers) explore that,” Atkins said. “Not to tell them what is right or wrong, but to help them explore for themselves and come up with their own answers.”
Some religious observers have sought professional help to manage relationships.
Certified emotion-focused couples therapist Diane Arnold of Charleston Christian Counselors said she has seen an increase in the number of Christian couples seeking help to repair troubled marriages.
Arnold, who has written two books on keeping marriages healthy, said many clients have talked about how their relationships have suffered because of the pandemic.
Couples often refer to certain scriptures when discussing marital woes. At that point, Arnold counsels with them to make sure the way they interpret the scriptures leads to healthy, not harmful, results in their relationship, she said.
Arnold also encourages couples to engage in spiritual activities together, such as listening to sermons or praying together. Couples who pray together tend to be more likely to stay together, she said.
“It’s very intimate to sit down and be vulnerable … to actually open my spirit to your spirit,” she said. “Is this really what a covenant is supposed to look like?”