For years my friend, Dan received phone calls from a man with significant mental health struggles. Dan wasn’t offering a professional service but simply acting as a dialogue partner for a few minutes at a time. Their conversations often centered on frustrations with the people in the man's life, namely family members and mental health professionals. This man’s faith was extremely important to him, so much so that the subject came up in almost all his conversations. Unfortunately, his faith was often communicated in ways that were experienced as harsh. Therefore, those in his life labeled him as “extreme” and “obsessive” and saw his faith as a detriment to his mental health. Such perspectives exasperated the man and led him time and again to pick up the phone and contact Dan.
To be clear, these calls weren’t due to Dan’s exceptional therapeutic skill. Instead, he wanted to speak with Dan because, unlike others in his life, Dan didn’t see faith as the problem, but as part of the solution. To be sure, Dan wasn’t naïve about the man’s unhelpful relational patterns or unwilling to address them. However, when doing so, Dan didn’t dismiss the man’s faith but delved into it. Dan explored how faith could be a resource for strengthening relationships rather than damaging them. Dan asked how scriptures like “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19) might help diminish conflict rather than enhance it. Dan prayed with the man for God’s help during difficult conversations. While others’ critiques made the man defensive, Dan’s questions, insights and prayers made him reflective and open to change.
Dan’s story is an important one to hear given the long line of mental health professionals who have disparaged religion. As John Swinton observes in his work, Spirituality and Mental Healthcare, some mental health professionals have seen religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis (Freud 1959), distorted and irrational thinking (D. Ellis 1980), a regression (Group for Advancement of Psychiatry), a psychotic episode (Horton, 1974) and even temporal lobe dysfunction (Mandel 1980)”. While clinicians don’t need to profess faith to conduct their work, they do need to consider it’s potential assets if they’re to support people for whom faith is a deep source of meaning, purpose and hope. If they don’t, Dan’s phone is going to keep ringing off the hook.