A Conversation Connecting Mental Health and Our Faith
Dana Timothy Peterson, PsyD
Dr. Dana Peterson is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. A former active-duty Navy Clinical Psychologist, he is currently the Chief of a Well-Being Services organization for the Department of Defense, overseeing all mental health treatment, consultation, and crisis management. Dana also serves as an Elder at LifePoint and balances out these heavier roles by having a wicked sense of humor and the ability to escape into the sky as a certificated commercial pilot.
Welcome to the second installment of our Well With My Soul series. In this installment, mental health professionals that are connected to LifePoint will be sharing truths about mental wellness. This week, Dr. Dana Peterson breaks down the complex connection between our mental health and our faith.
First of all, what does the Bible say about mental health and/or emotional distress?
Dana: “Fear not” is expressed over and over throughout the Bible. There’s no coincidence to this. God fully expected that we, created as human, would feel pain, including emotional pain, fear, anxiety. It’s a human experience – if we didn’t feel these things, we wouldn’t be human.
The thing that is important to note is that feeling deep emotions does not mean that we do not have faith. More specifically, we can feel God’s love and still struggle emotionally. I think Psalms is a great testament to this very truth. The entire book is full of not only David’s praises of peace, joy and God’s protection, but also his gut-wrenching lamentations and cries to the Father for help.
And why is this idea, that we can be saved and still struggle mentally or emotionally, difficult for many to understand?
Dana: I believe it’s the misunderstanding of salvation. Salvation is the easy part. God’s gracious gift has already been promised and given to us and all we need to do is believe in Him and accept the precious gift of salvation. But accepting this amazing gift cannot be confused with the difficult process of maturing spiritually.
Similar to being in recovery, right? It only takes the amount of time for drugs and alcohol to leave your system to become sober, but you’ll be in active recovery from addiction for the rest of your life.
Dana: Exactly. And part of our ‘recovery’ or spiritual growth can be feeling emotional pain. Just like physical pain, emotional pain is important. It is sending a very clear message that something is not right or healthy. We move our hand off of a hot stove, because the pain we feel sends a message to our brain to contract our muscles and move toward safety. Emotional pain is no different. It’s letting us know that we are struggling in a certain area that is keeping us from feeling whole. If we don’t listen to it, we allow the pain to deepen and become more destructive. Neither physical nor emotional pain correct themselves. We were created in the image of God. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. But we are complex, with physical, emotional and spiritual aspects that can each feel deep pain and suffering.
Why does God allow us to struggle this way?
Dana: Well, I think we first need to understand the relationship He desires with us. If God is our Father, and we are His adopted sons and daughters, we’re talking about an intimate relationship. And relationships come with challenges and baggage, don’t they? Even healthy ones. There’s this misconception that we can’t question God or let God see us at our worst, but that’s not true. He wants to be our safe place. There is no pain that He cannot heal; there’s no emotional or spiritual struggle He can’t transform. He wants us to take our pain to Him and embrace the journey of feeling our relationship with Him. Whatever baggage we bring to our relationship with Him, He can handle. We cannot “out-pain” God—whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual. Intimacy is bringing our true selves to Him, keeping nothing back.
It makes me think of what they say about how children act at home versus with others. Parents are, or should be, their child’s safe place, where they know that the love is unconditional. That means we often see them at their worst.
Dana: Exactly. And that’s intimacy. Letting yourself be completely seen. God is perfect but He doesn’t expect us to be. He wants us to feel comfortable bringing it all to Him.
If we look at the Book of Job, we’ll see that God doesn’t deliver Job from suffering. Job experienced immense emotional and spiritual pain. But God was with Job. He ensured that Job didn’t suffer alone.
Besides a more intimate relationship with our Father, what do we gain from these kinds of mental or emotional struggles?
Dana: I think there’s several things we can gain. Obviously, there’s a sense of appreciation for Him and what He provided. The mountain top isn’t as rewarding unless we’ve also experienced the valleys. By unpacking and truly experiencing emotional challenges of grief, loss, depression, anxiety, etc., we can more fully appreciate the embracing love of our Father, who has it all in His hands. But I also think that, going back to our spiritual maturity, He desires that we grow in Him. To stay the same in our relationship with God means that we are playing it safe. He wants us to take more risks in our honesty and dependence on Him. Deeper and deeper.
Growth doesn’t come from comfortable places.
Dana: That’s right. So not only do we hopefully lean into Him during times of struggle, but these times provide experience and understanding that help us grow spiritually.
Look at Joshua. Here’s a man of God, who was given a very clear mission from God. His purpose was extremely clear, along with a promise that God would not leave nor forsake him. However, several times, despite that real assurance of God’s presence, he had to be reminded to not be discouraged or fearful. Knowing that Joshua, who audibly heard from Heaven, needed a constant reminder to trust in God’s protection and provision, I take comfort in my own need for reassurance to do likewise in the big and small struggles of my life.
It’s hard to imagine Joshua struggling with discouragement, anxiety or any type of a mental disorder.
Dana: True, but a mental health disorder is clinically defined by a certain number of symptoms experienced over a certain period of time. Just because we don’t experience the required number of symptoms in the required amount of time doesn’t mean we don’t struggle mentally or emotionally. Not being officially diagnosed doesn’t mean that we haven’t struggled with mental health. In fact, nearly all of us have at one time or another, just not in the respect that we typically associate with being mentally unwell. It’s a spectrum or continuum.
Not a line in the sand with ‘sane’ on one side and ‘insane’ on the other?
Dana: Right. We all have different thresholds for what we can handle before we break. And that’s also true for our mental processing. It’s not linear. Emotional pain, like grief or recovering from the pandemic’s impacts over the past year, doesn’t have a deadline. As a society, we are sent a message that there’s a timeline for when we need to “get over it.” It doesn’t work that way. Time, by itself, does not heal all wounds. We can, and should expect, to have setbacks in our recovery from grief, loss or trauma.
Can we still grow spiritually even when we are struggling with emotional pain?
Dana: Of course. But the wound needs to be cleaned out in order to fully heal. When we convince ourselves we need to be over something, it does nothing to solve the issue. It usually just means that we bury it so it’s no longer on the surface. But it’s still there. It might be dormant, even for years, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And when it suddenly shows up again, we’re confused as to what is happening. We think we’ve already dealt with whatever it is. But we can’t move past something until we’ve fully allowed ourselves to unpack and process it.
How can we do this?
Dana: Professional therapy is designed to help us get to the root of the emotional wounds we carry. Having an objective professional perspective can be critical in understanding parts of ourselves that we might be blind to due to our proximity to the situation. There shouldn’t be any shame with taking the steps needed to heal properly. We can’t heal from a wound that we deny or overlook. We might know we are struggling with something, but refuse to take a moment to honestly understand it. It’s pretty impossible to fully heal a wound that we ignore.
What if this includes medication? Why is there such a stigma in some churches surrounding this?
Dana: I think part of it goes back to the whole misunderstanding that salvation equals healing. It doesn’t work that way. Healing is a process and salvation is instantaneous. I also think there’s some concern that antipsychotic or mood stabilizing medications will alter how a person thinks or what they believe. And while that isn’t necessarily false, it’s also not a negative thing. If you are experiencing a chemical imbalance in the brain that makes it impossible to stop certain thought patterns, it can be very difficult to get clarity or to get well without assistance.
But this is true of many natural occurrences of the body. Aren’t we impacted mentally when we’re extremely hungry or ‘hangry’? But we don’t think twice about getting something to eat to better deal mentally. Are we our best selves when we’re over-exhausted? In this case, taking medication is no different than getting a good night’s sleep. Not too different than the Tylenol I took this morning for a headache! It allows us a clean space with which to manage what we’re dealing with.
What is one thing that you wish more believers understood about emotional and mental health?
To be emotionally healthy is to feel the full range of emotions that God gave us. We were created to feel all of these things. It’s no surprise to God when we struggle. As believers, we need to be honest enough to not let it surprise us either when we feel things like anxiety or despair. Feeling emotions is a very different thing then letting the emotions define who we are.
When we are struggling, we have a very human tendency to pull away from the things that are good for us. We stop exercising or eating right. We may become withdrawn from others or isolate, particularly from other believers. The solution to this is to open the dialogue surrounding mental and spiritual health. When we can be honest with what we are feeling, and when we can listen with an open mind to those who are struggling, we are in the best position to get the support and resources we need. Being truly honest with our daily challenges allows us to fully live out God’s desire for His church to be a beacon of hope, love, unity and authenticity in our community!
Mental health should never be something we pull away from. God never pulls away from us.
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