Today’s post is the eighth in a series on Hot Topics in Children’s Mental Health offered in recognition of Mental Health Month, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 6-12), and National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (May 9).
I think Christian families are inclined to first seek out help within our faith community because they’re seeking to make sense out of the problems experienced by their kids within the context of their worldview, beliefs and value system. I also suspect that many are seeking mental health services from fellow Christians because our professional clergy are all too often ill-prepared to be of help in their time of need. Parents who take seriously their roles as their child’s primary faith trainer would be expected to seek help from someone who might help them understand how to promote their child’s spiritual growth and maturity in the face of conditions that impede such growth and all too often pose barriers to participation in Christian community.
When I first tackled this issue last year, I failed to appreciate the need parents have for support and guidance when their kids have conditions that not infrequently result in behaviors that can be characterized as “sin.” The challenge lies in the effort to find one person who can address the child’s mental health needs while helping the kid and their parents grasp the meaning and significance of their disorder(s) within the context of their faith.
Earlier in my career, parents would often express surprise when I’d complete an initial psychiatric evaluation and recommend that their child see someone other than myself for ongoing counseling or therapy. When I get this reaction now, more often than not identified Christian parents are involved. I respond by sharing with them the reality that while I’m qualified to do the therapy, other people in my practice or in collaborating practices are better at offering the therapy than I am. To borrow from Andy Stanley, my focus is on doing the things that only I can do for the kids and families we serve and delegating everything else. In my work world, the two unique things I can offer families are the ability to explain why their child is experiencing difficulties from a biological, psychological, social/environmental and (when appropriate) spiritual perspective, along with the ability and experience to prescribe medication when such treatment is necessary and appropriate.
We’ve discussed in this series the obstacles families experience in finding good mental health care for their kids. Parents are probably fortunate if they can find a professional or group capable of providing excellent treatment for their child’s condition. Given the relative underrepresentation of Christian professionals at the elite levels in the field of children’s mental health, finding someone who can also address the spiritual component may be nearly as hard as finding a camel capable of passing through the eye of a needle. Keeping in mind that I practice near a large city with more mental health resources available than in most parts of the country, if someone close to me asked for a referral to someone who could simultaneously address their child’s mental health needs and spiritual development with excellence, I’d have a very short list of names to offer them. Two such people are on the Key Ministry Board…the third runs the group practice I work in.
Getting back to today’s question…If a parent has available to them a mental health professional capable of treating their child effectively while promoting their spiritual growth, they should leap at the opportunity. But perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good. Effective treatment of your child’s mental health condition can often reduce or remove significant barriers to spiritual growth. Unfortunately, parents may find it far easier to find someone to fix their kid than finding someone to fix the attitudes demonstrated toward persons experiencing mental illness at their church.
Fortunately, more and more churches are developing the necessary understanding to effectively support Christian families with children experiencing significant emotional or behavioral disorders. NAMI FaithNet is an excellent resource for churches seeking to minister more effectively to families impacted by mental illness. So is Mental Health Grace Alliance.
As churches get better at helping families make sense of mental illness in the context of their Christian faith, parents will have one less need to consider in seeking treatment for their child.
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