A Wise Guide to the Mental Health Minefield

19 June 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

Mental Health and Your Church: A Handbook for Biblical Care, Helen Thorne & Dr. Steve Midgley.  Charlotte:  The Good Book Company, 2023.  Softcover, 191 pages.

The area of mental health can seem like a dangerous minefield.  There are dangers to the left and to the right.  And churches don’t always lead their members safely through.  For example, there are those who believe mental illness is a myth.  Medication is just a get-rich-quick scheme for Big Pharma.  All we need is in the Bible.  But on the other side, there are those who believe the Bible has little or nothing to offer to those suffering from mental illness.  They only need medical help, or they only need what various therapies can offer.  Mental Health and Your Church was written to guide churches through the complexities associated with mental illness.

The authors write that the aim of their book is “not to turn you into mental-health professionals but to equip you with knowledge and wisdom, and to help grow that attitude of love and compassion towards those who struggle” (p.17).  To achieve this aim, the book is broken down into three sections:  Understanding Mental Illness, What Can We Do?, and Caring in Practice.  Woven through the book are the stories of five people.  Chi struggles with severe anxiety, Andy with clinical depression, Siobhan with addictions/substance abuse, Ben with psychosis, and Kelly is trying to help her anorexic daughter.  Each chapter finishes with Questions for Reflection and it also includes a section of Further Resources at the back of the book.

Mental Health and Your Church has several strengths leading me to recommend it.  One is a clear commitment to the Word of God as our ultimate authority.  Another is a solid understanding of how the gospel relates to mental illness.  But the authors also help us understand the complicated nature of mental illness.  There is always a spiritual component to every struggle in this broken world, but often the way forward is more than a spiritual solution.  Christians may make use of the insights of modern medicine and psychology.  When it comes to the latter, Thorne and Midgley note that “secular therapies can offer vital help for people in distress.  What may be wise, however, is that those receiving such therapy find a godly Christian friend to help them reflect on the help they are getting” (p.63).

Additionally, I really appreciate the way the authors discuss trauma.  This cannot be overlooked in discussions about mental health.  So many Christians have experienced traumatic events like childhood sexual abuse or family violence.  Sadly, well-intentioned church leaders have sometimes re-traumatized struggling members.  The authors write, “Trauma is a complex area.  It would be deeply unwise for the average pastor or congregation member to encourage someone to relive a traumatic event to try to address flashbacks” (p.105).  They insist (rightly) that trauma needs to be addressed by “someone with significant training and relevant experience (p.106).

These authors bring a heap of knowledge and experience to their readers.  Steve Midgley is currently a pastor, but previously worked as a medical doctor in psychiatry.  His co-author Helen Thorne is a counsellor.  Together they’ve written a great book with many helpful nuggets of wisdom for church leaders and members alike.  It’s not a technical, scholarly sort of book – it’s just written for everyday Christians.  If you want to learn how better to support brothers and sisters struggling with mental illness, helping rather than hurting, this practical guide would be a fantastic start.

Originally published in Clarion 73.8 (June 7, 2024)