Why integrate faith and mental health? A view from a theologian

An interview with Dr. Jill Crainshaw, Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity


CareNet’s sole mission is “to provide high quality, faith-integrated counseling and behavioral health services to clients and be a resource to the community that enhances mental and spiritual health.” As far as CareNet is concerned, faith and mental health cannot be separated. But, how do other professionals see the relationship between faith and mental health, particularly through CareNet, Inc.? In our newsletter, we have been interviewing those whose paths cross this conversation to understand their perspective – so far, clergy and clinicians. Today, we hear from theologian, Dr. Jill Crainshaw.


People seek counselors for many reasons. Often people experience a life crisis or transitional moment that causes them to seek assistance or support from a professional counselor. CareNet does a good job of working with people to integrate their mental health with their faith perspectives or religious beliefs and values. Often when people are in crisis, they have lost a sense of life’s meaning and purpose. For many, this sense of loss has a spiritual dimension. They ask, “Why has this happened to me,” or “What does this mean about my life,” or “Where is God in all of this?” Some people who wrestle with these kinds of questions are already people of faith (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc) and something has happened to cause them to question where and how God resides in their lives. Part of the reason people seek counseling from professional caregivers is related to this, even if they cannot always articulate it. They are seeking to rediscover or reclaim that sense of meaning and purpose in their lives as part of the healing process. Some are seeking to rediscover—and sometimes understand anew—God or Spirit or Creator in their lives.


Sometimes I am asked to offer workshops for counselors who want to explore what some of those spiritual and theological dimensions might be for people and how they might help people through counseling to think reflect theologically or spiritually about the things that are happening in their lives, particularly if they bring that desire or concern to the counseling session.


When people are open to doing some theological reflection, or to thinking about the spiritual dimensions of the struggles they are facing, counselors can open the way for them to think about and imagine, or re-imagine, how God’s story is connected to their story. For some it can be healing and even transforming to consider how their story—even the hard parts of their story—is a part of God’s story. Doing this work can help people realize that no matter what has happened to them they can reconnect with the presence of God—or Spirit—and in that find healing and peace.


Counselors are called upon to use all of their professional training and skills as they care for people. Learning to listen spiritually or theologically to people—learning to hear the spiritual dimensions of clients’ struggles—can be a valuable part of the work counselors do. To cultivate skills of theological and spiritual reflection enables counselors to help clients move toward those “ultimate” questions about God and life’s purpose in ways that are healthful. The aim is not necessarily to give spiritual advice or to say “Here’s how God is present” or “here’s what the Bible says.” Rather, it is about asking questions that invite clients to think theologically spiritually for themselves and to draw on the resources of their own religious traditions.


From what I’ve observed and experienced from CareNet care providers, CareNet seeks to meet people where they are in their life struggles, recognizing that counseling and care are holistic endeavors that involve mind, body, and spirit. Counseling and care are about the emotional and physical, but they are also about the spiritual dimensions of people’s lives.


Healthy people are generally self-aware and have at least a basic sense of how their spiritual, mental, and physical selves are integrated. When that sense of wholeness gets out of sync, they seek ways to draw that back together. When people are in faith communities, they often turn to those communities, to sacred texts, or to spiritual practices like worship or prayer to try to put their lives and their sense of self back together again when it all falls apart.


Faith communities do have to be aware, though, that they can’t provide the entire range of mental healthcare that people need. Sometimes people of faith need the resources of professionals who are trained to work with them on particular psychological or emotional issues or difficulties. Prayer is very powerful, but people sometimes need along with prayer the insights and skills of a trained counselor.  Faith-integrated counselors look for ways to help clients seek healing that is connected to those clients’ faith traditions, perspectives and values.


Gaining mental health is a holistic endeavor that involves care of minds, bodies, and spirits. What this means is that mental health is related to communal health. It is important that clergy (from diverse religious traditions) and counselors work together as a community or network of caregivers who each provide valuable resources from our different perspectives.


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