Clergy v. Therapy: there’s a difference

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Slowly but surely, the mental health epidemic among today’s college-age population is getting more and more attention.

Utah abounds in addiction and suicide rates. Common mental health struggles include depression, anxiety, bipolarism, disordered eating, suicide ideation, addiction and many more.  

Many Utah residents can benefit from professional therapy, but fail to see it as an option under the cultural or religious circumstances.  While a bishop, priest, pastor, or rabbi can offer love, companionship and a prayer of strength, they cannot offer the clinically proven expertise that a professional can, said Steve Sturgeon, an Episcopal priest who serves at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Logan.  

In the training I received to become an ordained clergy member in the Episcopal Church, there was a strong emphasis on the fact that in the pastoral care and counseling that we might give to members we always needed to remember and to communicate the fact that we are not therapists,” Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon’s words reinforce the fact church leaders cannot offer a purely objective ear.  They cannot prescribe medicine for severe chemical imbalances.  They cannot teach long-established, tried-and-true therapeutic practices such as Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

This is no way discredits the positive influence these religious individuals can have in their respective communities.  It merely means that expecting clergy to end clinical depression, heal an addiction or offer counsel on one’s history of abuse is like trying to eat soup with chopsticks.  The tool is not suited to the reality.

Aside from pre-marital counseling, which assures that people are not rushing into marriage, Sturgeon said, “the rule of thumb I was told to follow was that if, after meeting with someone three times, it became clear that the issue at hand was not resolvable through or outside the bounds of pastoral counseling then it is necessary to make a referral to a therapist or a support group with expertise on the issue.”

Expecting a church leader to know the best course of action when presented with mental illness can be risky.  Alexander Troutner, a junior in Religious Studies at Utah State University, said, “I actually know a few students who have dealt with their religious leader poorly handling their mental health issues.”

Often church leaders who have the best intentions fail to see red flags as anything more than minor peculiarities in one’s personality, he said.  They are not trained to see the signs of budding mental illness.  And when such an illness has reached its maturity, they are equally incapable of handling diagnosis and treatment.

This was the experience of USU Housing Training and Development Specialist Shannon Jolley.

“I actually have a very personal history in terms of bishops as therapists,” she said. “I developed OCD at the age of seven with strong scrupulosity obsessions and compulsions. Instead of helping me to get some sort of therapy/intervention, my obsessive religious behavior was praised and encouraged. It was not until I had a bishop who was a trained psychologist in his lay life, that I was directed to get appropriate help.”

Pastor Derek Forbes of the First Presbyterian Church in Logan said that while faith leaders can be beneficial, therapists are one’s best resource when faced with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress (to name a few).

“Mental health stigma is an important issue of our day… I believe that at certain points in our life almost all of us need counseling or therapy, and I encourage people to seek this out if they are struggling with something,” he said. “As a pastor myself I frequently talk with people about these issues, but I often encourage people to seek professional help that clergy — even well-trained clergy — may not be able to provide.”

Mental health issues are common and do not need to be negatively stigmatized. An individual in need of therapy is not one in a million, but one of millions. For professional help, students can contact USU Counseling and Psychological Services at 435-797-1012.

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