Commenter Mark on how the church is helping those with mental illness

Speaking of taking comments to blog posts, Mark gave us this one regarding therapists.

Secular culture has a lot of catching up to do in this regard. There are churches that offer free courses on lay counseling as a Sunday School curriculum. So, what you get is armies of people equipped at a basic level to offer free, “religion”-based peer-to-peer counseling services, in the trenches, where people live and work. When it comes down to it, it isn’t the paper certificate, but the effectiveness of the tools that make the impact.


There are churches that offer free courses on lay counseling as a Sunday School curriculum.

Places with no qualification to teach the subject offer courses in a discipline for which it takes over a decade of study for someone to acquire a license to practice?  Sign me up!  And just in the course of a Sunday school curriculum?  Holy shit!  The church is either centuries ahead of its time in their ability to educate or something is really fishy here.  I’m gonna go with fishy.

So, what you get is armies of people equipped at a basic level to offer free, “religion”-based peer-to-peer counseling services, in the trenches, where people live and work.

If they’re getting religion-based treatment, rather than evidence-based treatment from someone trained in a Sunday school class, even “free” would be a rip off.

You say secular people need to catch up to this practice, but I think it’s clearly the other way around.  These churches are sending people out who, though vastly ill-equipped to handle those with mental illness, are giving the impression that they are prepared to counsel someone.  This is harmful.  The victims of mental illness need real help from people who have studied the subject in a university with experts in the field, not from people who attended a fucking Sunday school class.  The latter is not a behavior the secular community should want to emulate.  We would be descending to be more like these churches.

A better solution, call me crazy, would be to insist in evidence-based treatment and to get the sick people to someone qualified to deal with their sickness.

When it comes down to it, it isn’t the paper certificate, but the effectiveness of the tools that make the impact.

Sure.  Why go through 10+ years of expensive school with homework, lab work, rigorous time-consuming research, tests, and more?  I mean hell, it’s just a piece of paper, right?  Why go through all that when all you need is a Sunday school class and 20CCs of Jesus?

Listen here and listen good, Mark: church is not the equivalent of education.  In fact, in this case, when you’re saying the tools acquired in Sunday school class are either equal to, or superior to a doctoral degree, church is clearly the antithesis of education.  The piece of paper is representative of a shit load of work to make sure that the people licensed to counsel/treat those with mental illness are ready to deal with this very complex subject without doing harm to the patient.  The study, and the ability to demonstrate that they know the material and can apply it are signified by that piece of paper.

Are you really going to sit here and tell me that these “tools” can be achieved in the course of a Sunday school class (or that the bible is more effective)?  Are you even listening to what you’re saying?  Fuck, is your Sunday school going to start qualifying people in the fields of nuclear physics, cardiology, and/or chemistry too?  At least with physics and chemistry they wouldn’t be taking a huge shot at fucking up another human being even worse.

This is what kills me about religion (particularly Christianity): it produces this kind of monumental arrogance and then treats it as if there are no consequences.  Not only that, it looks on someone’s illness not merely as a travesty, but as an opportunity for the believer to evangelize so that the compassion is diluted with self-interest (“Of course we’re helping them get better! That’s what Jesus does!”).  The faithful, as you paint them Mark, are unconcerned with the irresponsibility and potential damage of sending someone out with a few hours of training (And who is providing this training?  Sunday school teachers?)who think they can even come close to doing the job of a trained professional.  And I am supposed to believe this is done because the church (and people like you) really think this is the best way to help the afflicted?

Give me a fucking break.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • a miasma of incandescent plasma

    peer-to-peer counseling services, in the trenches, where people live and work.

    And notice the subtle jab to those that are actually suffering – the idea that everyone that needs mental health attention are still out working and doing stuff “in the trenches” ’cause it’s, like, not like a real disease that needs serious medical professional attention. Dontchakno, what really counts is that these nice christians are out in the world – in the trenches – showing other people looking on how much compassion they have for people that are a little sad or moody and unpleasant to be around and stuff… Praise Jebus thems are some good folks to do that for those people.

  • Roving Rockhound, collector of dirt

    Dear FSM, this is ridiculous. This goes well beyond the mess that pastors already make by “counseling” people – at least some of them have a tiny bit of real training and experience.

    Every week I realize just how much my shrink could fuck me up if he wanted to (or wasn’t particularly good at what he does). Having lay people trained in Sunday School counsel (biblically!) those with mental illness is idiotic.

  • Donovanable

    Not to mention that any certified therapist/psychologist/counselor has *required* hours of continuing education to complete each year to retain a license. This is because things CHANGE. We realize some therapy or accepted practice should be scrapped in favor of something else. Fast example: the anti-suicide agreements. (I can’t quite think of the right name atm). They read something like “I X, agree to call these people, XYZ, if I am feeling suicidal. If I cannot reach them, I will call Therapist A. If I cannot reach them, I will call this Hotline B” It used to be standard practice to have a client sign one if they were considering suicide or had a history of ideation.
    Turns out they don’t work, aren’t based on any substantial evidence, and generally, clients see them as ass-covering.
    That’s only recently been realized–if you aren’t getting continuing education, you aren’t going to hear about it.

  • eric

    I saw a similar example of ‘compassion diluted with self-interest’ in Africa. The tribal folks I talked to needed carpenters. Farmers. Plumbers. Folks who could help them build and maintain infrastructure. But US churches kept sending them evangelists who wanted to convert them even though they were already Christian. How could it possibly help to send missionaries to people already in your sect? How self-absorbed do you have to be to not even enquire of the people you’re trying to help as to what they need?

    This can only be a feel-good exercise for the people who want to help, not the people who need the help. If real help is too difficult or beyond the skill set of our congregants, we’ll at least mutter incantations over you. That way we will feel less guilty about our non-help. My incantation shows I care, right?

    Having said that, I’ve also seen churches who help the right way. I.e., if you say you need carpenters, we’ll send you people with carpentry skills, plus hammers, saws, nails, wood, etc…

  • Jim Lippard

    This is an area where those with the credentials may not be much better–there is a yawning divide between experimental psychology and counseling psychology, where the latter does not pay much attention to the former. See, e.g., Robyn Dawes, _House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth_. Unless you get a therapist who does, in fact, practice evidence-based counseling, talk therapy with someone who got their training at Sunday School class may be just as good. I no longer have a copy of Dawes book, but this review reports on one of the studies which Dawes replicated, which found no correlation between efficacy of therapy and the credentials of the therapist:

    • Roving Rockhound, collector of dirt

      If you compare a really bad therapist with a really good SS-trained person, then maybe, but on average it cannot possibly hold true. Most (all?) therapists have some sort of certification, and they have gone through some sort of prolonged training that includes real counseling experience. How many contact hours do you think these Sunday School people have with an instructor, and who is the teacher? A pastor? A guy with only an undergraduate degree in social work or psychology?

      My undergraduate school had a hotline. A very good friend was in the staff. Their training was 40 hours in the classroom, 10 hours of mock calls, and then at least 20 hours of real calls with someone listening in. And then there was always someone with more experience in the room to take difficult calls, an on-call therapist to transfer the call to, and the campus police available to go check on someone in person. What do Sunday School trained counselors have? Jesus?

      But yes, insurance is currently a problem. I question, however, whether these people are really better than nothing.

  • jamessweet

    There’s a nugget of truth in Mark’s comment, though. As long as there are people who do not have comprehensive insurance coverage for mental health, an organization that can offer something “therapy-like” for free is going to have an advantage.

    I had this pointed out to me when I was poo-pooing AA, and commenting that cognitive-behavorial therapy had much better outcomes. Somebody pointed out that AA is free and ubiquitous. This is true. The fact that it sucks and is barely more effective than just trying on your own is somewhat irrelevant if it’s the only thing available to you.

    So in a sense, Mark is right that “secular culture has a lot of catching up to do.” Where Mark goes off the rails is in thinking that the “catching up” involves giving a bunch of laypeople minimal training and then saying, “Good ’nuff, now go treat some people with mental illness! Just do your best!” The “catching up” is in terms of availability. And we do that with a comprehensive national insurance plan.

  • evilDoug

    I see a real risk of doing real harm – along the lines of of that done by some of the shit that Oprah promotes like The Secret.

    Mentally ill? All you need to do is …
    You aren’t going to get what you want because you don’t want it bad enough.
    You’re to blame.
    It’s your fault.
    Put your faith in … and you’ll be fine.
    Don’t be silly – suicide isn’t the answer; we’ll talk again next week.

    All the moronic shit that the stupid and ignorant offer as free advice all the time, but with active reinforcement to do it.
    Better than nothing? Maybe. Maybe not.

  • Krisko

    I started being subjected to a completely neurophysiological (aka natural) disease in high school, when I was still deeply involved in the church. It later turned out that stress (or at least the hormones secreted from the emotion) was a major factor. I can tell you for a certainty that as soon as I stopped being convinced that I would be condemned to hell for my thoughts I became much healthier.

  • Brownian

    How can this possibly be good? Other than those they ignore, what fields do Sunday School teachers using the Bible as their sourcebook not get completely wrong? Can you imagine Sunday School trained lay paleontologists? Geologists? Astronomers? Biologists? Mathematicians? Physicists? Chemists? Doctors? Historians? Ethicists?

    I mean maybe, just maybe, this is the one time that they put down the Bible and fire up PubMed, but I’d need to see it to believe it.

    • Brownian

      Fuck, is your Sunday school going to start qualifying people in the fields of nuclear physics, cardiology, and/or chemistry too?

      Okay, I really have to stop reading these posts in a minimised window. I see JT beat me to the punch.

    • IslandBrewer

      I can’t wait for the Sunday School Neurosurgery curriculum!

      • Phledge

        No brain, no brain surgery.

  • lizdudek

    Five years of pseudo-counseling from people trained by “free courses on lay counseling” at my church messed me up more than I can adequately describe. People need professionally trained counselors, not a fucking sermon.

    Brilliant retort to that statement, JT.

  • littlekropotkin

    This is rather infuriating. When I was struggling with depression in high school, the first thing that my parents tried was to send me to church. It did absolutely nothing to help. If anything, it made matters worse because I was already a non-christian by then. This kind of thing is just another example of how religion pretends to be beneficial while failing to do any good that couldn’t be done better by secular means. *shakes head*

  • Alethea H. Claw

    Curiously apt is this current post:

    Here’s the fun part: I am autistic & have temporal lobe epilepsy. My mother went from a bit off to absolutely convinced that I was possessed by demons. Eastern Orthodox don’t even really do the exorcism thing-certainly not the way evangelicals do-but I had not one, not two, but three exorcisms. Being waterboarded with holy water is still being waterboarded.

  • Amyc

    Ok yeah, that pisses me off. I’ve been suffering from major depressive disorder since I was in grade school, and I didn’t get any real help for it until the past year. I think it’s mainly because I was scared away from any kind of counseling when I was younger. My mom had me go talk to the youth minister at church. She was actually supposed to have had a degree in counseling, but all it entailed was asking me how my week went and then 45 minutes of awkwardly praying (awkward for me because I had already shed my belief in prayer by then). It made me feel horrible. When I was in junior high I would pray for hours at a time, crying, on my knees and god never helped me. I put all of my faith in that and it got me nowhere. Then I finally started shedding my “god virus” (if I may steal from Darryl Ray) and this minister was sucking me back in, and making me feel like my suffering was my fault because I wasn’t loving Jesus enough. No, fuck that noise, I want evidence-based therapy and medications.

  • Jon Voisey

    This obviously works! Because we all know that religion based services work so well. Just look at the camps for gay kids. After all, they claim that’s a mental issue that they can cure. Just like they can pray away cancer!

  • seditiosus

    I understand the argument about access and the cost involved in seeing a real professional, but I don’t see how this is any different to any other form of alt-med snake oil. This is not just having a friendly talk with people or creating a space where they can discuss their problems; this is being explicitly described as counselling for people with mental illness. Passing something that’s a placebo at best off as actual treatment is just plain unethical and yes, it is worse than nothing, because people will use it instead of real treatment even when they could have accessed real treatment. People will also encourage others to use it instead of real treatment.

  • shari

    holy crap!!! (er, utterly unironic here!!)

    I attend a church that likes to do problem-solving in their community service (carpenters, first responders, paramedic-trained volunteers, you get the idea). They do it well. They do it to a point of offering support groups – usually spearheaded by someone who has both certification and the faith background. And they will refer you in a heartbeat to seeking medical help if they see evidence of mental illness. That’s likely more insurance-proofing than just basic common sense.

    I agree that for the insurance-challenged – any illness, let alone mental illness – can just wreak havoc in your life, or in your families. And they have very few options. I think these churches mean well, but it’s a colossal amount of arrogance to think they will actually do less harm than good. I have my faith, but I’ll be the first one in line avoiding a faith-healer!!!

  • Leum

    In fairness to Mark, he may be confusing peer support and counseling. Peer support is a valuable service that has helped me and many of my friends through our mental illnesses. The support of like-minded people going through similar problems is invaluable, and can be hard to come by. My support group works very hard to differentiate peer support (which we do) and counseling (which we don’t), but I suspect a lot of people may not be into the nuances and see them as interchangeable.

  • Kaoru Negisa

    To be honest, I can see why this could be thought of as helpful. I mean, when you only have one answer, you don’t need 10+ years of study. The problem is just an excess of thetans, and a self-audit should clear that right up.

    That’s what Christians believe, right?

  • gwen

    When I was in Nursing School, we did the required rotation at a local inpatient psychiatric unit. There were two very troubling classes of inpatient; the ones who KNEW they were Jesus/God, and the ones who belonged to religious sect that did not believe in psychiatric medication/care/illness. Both groups would be stabilized and cycle back through with depressing frequency. Of course, now that these hospitals have been closed, and the state has made it more difficult to hospitalize even the most delusional, it is more likely that you will find them on the streets…after the church decides they are demon possessed and hopeless…

    My uncle was a productive member of society as long as he stayed on his meds, which he mostly did for 30 years. Alas laws changed. You are ‘allowed to be mentally ill’, we could not get him the help he so sorely needed, and he never had a stable productive life again. As a matter of fact, I would say it was a shortened life. Was he happier? I would say NO.

  • Sophia Dodds

    Delightful. I have personal experience with the religious VS trained attitudes toward people with mental illness. Religious people never fail (in my experience – there might be some with a shred of empathy somewhere) to make things worse as the only thing they do is convince themselves that they’re helping you without ever listening to what your problems really are. You can try to talk to them, try to explain. All they hear is that there’s something wrong and they KNOW exactly what’ll fix you. They’ll keep on bombarding you with their opinion and sometimes even try to take action without your consent.

    Two days ago I was ready to call the police on my own mother because of this kind of attitude. I’m looking after my one month old son right now, I’ve got severe anxiety and depression and after a whole week and weekend of my husband working late all week and all through the weekend I was feeling trapped and exhausted and had a bit of an episode on the sunday night. I got over it, as I do, though the next day I was slow and weak and mentally drained as my brain tends to resort to deadening my nerve connections when I get really bad.
    My mum rang me, no reason, just wanted to see how I was. I told her I’d had a bad night but was ok. Of course, she immediately jumped to the idea that my son was in danger and it was my fault (despite my lovely mother-in-law being there with me helping that whole day). She drove over and immediately peppered me with questions, tried to tell me I needed to see someone immediately and suggested that she take my son away to her place for the night. If my mother-in-law hadn’t been there things might have gone much worse – I suspect she might have even tried to take him anyway. I told her to leave the house multiple times and she wouldn’t listen. She has the idea that since I’m not 100% mentally healthy that my opinions and feelings have no bearing on anything and that she’s always right. Set me back a whole day, she did – and still came over the next day acting as if nothing at all had happened.

    It’s this attitude that’s instilled in people who believe in the supernatural – that they are somehow monumentally important and that they can ‘change the universe’ just by thinking/praying/wanting/wishing hard enough. This kind of supercharged egotism results in a distinct lack of empathy. If you’re all-powerful, then you are always right because you’ve got the power to do anything! Look at any religious or spiritual practice and you’ll see it, sometimes buried, but always there. -You- are important, -you- can do anything because there’s some invisible force or being that’s subject to your whims.

    Anyone telling me that religion-based therapy is anything but harmful can go insert one of the Pharyngula-issue mouldy porcupines into whichever bodily orifice they possess that is currently unoccupied by the same. To help people you need to listen, understand and empathise. Spiritual mental modality despises these qualities.

  • Marshall

    When it comes down to it, it isn’t the paper certificate, but the effectiveness of the tools that make the impact.

    How could you possibly know how effective the tools are when there is no record keeping and no accountability? You can’t just imply that the tools you’re talking about are adequately effective, you have to have SOMETHING that allows you to make that determination. If there aren’t even standards in place to allow you to be sure that everything is done consistently, the effectiveness is going to vary immensely between one person and the next. There is no oversight whatsoever. It is inevitable that someone is going to use the wrong tool for a serious problem, and the results are going to be horrible.

    • Leo

      I was going to say that I actually somewhat agree with Mark’s point there. When I read that, I think about the diploma mills that some of the creationists go to so they think they can call themselves “Dr.” The difference between Mark and us is that he probably thinks the tools of religion are effective. Whereas I suspect they are not any better than those diploma mills; they just skip the diploma part of it.

      • Marshall

        See, in this case you don’t have the paper certificate OR any data to use to determine the effectiveness of the tools. Would I agree that the effectiveness of the tools is more important than the paper certificate? Sure, but the reason we HAVE those paper certificates is so that we have some way of indicating that someone has demonstrated that they understand and can effectively apply the tools. Even if the tools themselves WERE effective, if the person using them doesn’t understand how they work you end up with hammers being used in place of screwdrivers and chainsaws being used where all you really needed was a level.

  • Fin

    JT, I totally agree, well said! I have depression, and was raised Catholic, so the first place I went to for help was church. The priest (who actually had a degree in psychology, FFS) basically told me it was due to ‘sin’, it was my fault, I was being ungrateful to God and I needed to repent. Guess what? That led to my first suicide attempt! That’s religious ‘counselling’ for you.

    Thankfully, I am now being treated with SSRIs from a real doctor, and am much better!

  • Yellow Thursday

    After my dad died, my mom dragged me and my brother to a series of free (at least, I hope my mom didn’t pay anything for them) grief counselors at local churches. All they did was stir up bad feelings, incite shouting matches between the three of us, and leave us in a worse emotional state than before we went.

  • cl

    This is what kills me about religion (particularly Christianity): it produces this kind of monumental arrogance

    LOL! Do you realize how arrogant you and many of your atheist commenters come across at times? Not all the time, but just sayin’… atheists are fond of making “atheists are more intelligent than believer” type claims, well… follow it to the end: arrogance is the vice of the intelligent, not the simple. So, I think atheism is more likely to “produce” arrogance than religion, and, my experience on atheist blogs seems to confirm this.

    • JT Eberhard

      This is not a response to anything pointed out in the post. You do not defend the behavior advocated by Mark. You do not say that religion does not produce arrogance (the evidence for which I laid out in the post to no rebuttal from you). All we just got from you is a “Atheists are arrogant!”

      You don’t even seem particularly put out by the potential harm or the obvious immorality of the church as laid out in the post. At least you didn’t feel the need to comment on it, though you sure took the time to curl your lip at atheists.

      I always point out how the faithful tend to turn a blind eye to their own failings. I generally use the Catholic church as an example, but the comments by believers on this blog never fail to drive that point home.

    • Kaoru Negisa

      arrogance is the vice of the intelligent, not the simple

      So, wait a minute, are you saying that atheists actually are more intelligent than believers since we’re so very arrogant and that’s a “vice of the intelligent”?

      For shame, cl! Saying such things about believers. They may be wrong about god, but that hardly makes them “simple” as you seem to want to claim.

      Now that I’ve made my satirical point, let’s try and determine what logical fallacy this is. One could argue that you’re jumping to conclusions or making a sweeping generalization. In a way this is affirming the consequent as well.

      Ultimately, though, I’d call it begging the question. You presume that arrogance is the sole result of intelligence rather than considering other contributing factors, like the belief that the All Powerful Creator of the Universe and Lord of All Things has a close, personal relationship with some people, a thought that can be held by the simplest and most intelligent person alike.