Heidi Dirks: Mental Health FAQ

Mental Health Initiative 2018

Note: This article is intended to provide general information and is not a substitute for professional assessment and interventions.

What causes mental illness?

In general, mental illnesses are caused when our brain doesn’t work the way it’s meant to. This can be due to a combination of physical factors such as genetics, a physical injury or substance use, or environmental and social factors such as experiencing war, trauma, the stress in our lives, and our access to social supports when we need help.

For example, symptoms of depression may be caused by low levels of serotonin in the brain, a chemical in the brain that carries signals between cells. We don’t fully understand what causes mental illnesses, or why some illnesses seem to run in families even though not every family member develops the illness.

While sin in our life, or sins perpetrated by others, can sometimes contribute to symptoms of a mental illness, mental illnesses are not caused by sin or a lack of faith. For example, an individual may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after being assaulted, where someone else’s sin impacted their life and they developed a mental illness as a result of the trauma they experienced.

I’ve been feeling sad lately. Am I depressed?

It’s normal to feel sad sometimes. Maybe you have experienced a loss, are in the midst of a life transition, or are feeling isolated from supportive people in your life. Psalm 42 gives voice to feelings of distress in the midst of seeking God, asking “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (verse five). There are many examples of sadness, desperation, and despair in the Psalms.

When a mental health professional talks about depression they are referring to a mental illness that is diagnosed based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). There are different types of depression, but often when people talk about depression they are meaning Major Depressive Disorder. The symptoms listed in the criteria for this diagnosis need to be severe enough to significantly interfere with your daily life. Feeling sad doesn’t necessarily mean that you have depression; it may mean that you need some extra support right now, but you may meet criteria to be diagnosed.

If you are wondering if you have depression, talk to your doctor or a mental health worker. They can help walk you through an assessment, a possible diagnosis, treatment options, and connect you to supports in your life.

Is it okay for Christians to take medication for a mental illness? I’m also afraid about the side effects of medication.

Yes, it’s perfectly okay! As mental illnesses are likely caused by a combination of factors (physical, environmental, and social), medication can be a critical part of treating a mental illness. For example, medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) are a commonly prescribed antidepressant, and they work to increase serotonin levels in the brain which lessens the symptoms of depression caused by low levels of serotonin. Just as Christians take medication for physical illnesses such as diabetes and bronchitis, sometimes we take medication for mental illnesses.

If your doctor is recommending medication, ask questions about the benefits and risks of the medication, including what side effects there may be. This will help you make an informed decision about whether you choose to take the medication. If you are already taking medication, don’t change your dose or stop taking the medication without first talking with your doctor. There may also be other treatment options, such as therapy/counselling, that a doctor can recommend.

Can people diagnosed with a mental illness recover from it?

Absolutely! But recovery will look different for each individual person. It may mean that the symptoms of the mental illness mostly go away, or that the individual learns to live a full life with the symptoms still present. Medication and therapy may be an important part of a person’s recovery.

But part of recovery is also finding hope and meaning in life. Christians find hope in God’s love for and offer of salvation, and they may find strength and meaning from spiritual practices such as prayer and reading scripture.

As well, social supports that come with being part of a faith community can be an important part of recovery. In the March 2018 edition of The Messenger, Irene Ascough wrote about how churches can promote positive mental health. These practices are helpful for all people, regardless of whether or not they currently struggle with a mental illness.

If I think someone is thinking about suicide, should I avoid bringing up the topic?

If you’re concerned that someone is thinking about suicide you can directly ask them if they are thinking of hurting or killing themselves. If their answer is “yes,” let them know that you care and make sure that they get help.

If they are in immediate danger, don’t leave them alone, reach out to crisis services (such as a local mental health crisis line) or emergency services (911-EMS, your local hospital emergency room). Look up your local crisis numbers and put them in your phone so you have them available if a crisis comes up.

If you want to be more prepared to respond to someone who is thinking about suicide, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is an excellent two-day training that will give you skills to assess suicide risk and respond to the situation. Living Works (www.livingworks.net) offers training for ASIST and other suicide awareness training programs.

I’m trying to read my Bible and pray more. Why do I still feel anxious?

Spiritual practices including reading scripture and prayer can be an important part of a person’s mental wellness. If practices that have been lifegiving to you in the past are no longer enough to help you cope with feelings anxiety, perhaps some additional wellness practices or mental health interventions are needed.

If reading scripture and prayer is done because you feel pressured or not doing so is making you feel guilty, you could speak to your pastor or a spiritual mentor for encouragement and to explore ways to connect with God.

What’s the difference between a counsellor, psychologist, and psychiatrist?

Counsellors (may also be called a counselling therapist, therapist, psychotherapist) have a range of backgrounds, which may include a master’s or doctorate degree in counselling or a related field. Some Canadian provinces have regulated the counselling profession where practitioners must meet certain requirements in order to be licensed/accredited, but others have no regulation and it is up to consumers to check a counsellor’s education and credentials.

Psychologists have graduate level training in the field of psychology, with a focus on research as well as assessment and practice in treating mental illnesses. In order to work as a psychologist, practitioners must be licensed by their local regulatory body (such as the Psychological Association of Manitoba).

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in mental health, and they are able to prescribe medication. As a medical doctor, they are regulated by their province in the same way as your family doctor. The distinction between these three professionals becomes important when you are looking for specific mental health services, as well as with the cost of services.

Psychiatric services are covered through the health care system, and private insurance plans may cover services from psychologists and/or counsellors. Talk to your doctor or a mental health worker where you live to find out what options you have available to you.

Heidi Dirks

If you would like to see a Christian counsellor or psychologist, ask your pastor for information of clinicians in your area, or look on the websites of professional associations (such as the Professional Association of Christian Counsellors and Psychotherapists).

Heidi Dirks, BEd, MA (counselling), is a member of the EMC’s Mental Health Initiative committee and the Board of Church Ministries. She is part of Aberdeen EMC.

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