When Therapy Becomes a Devil Term, Especially in Church

When Therapy Becomes a Devil Term, Especially in Church

So I know so many people who grew up Evangelical who grew up with the overt message that therapy is terrible. I grew up with a more covert stigma about it in my right-leaning moderate neck of the woods, but it was effective all the same with me for a long time. As I’ll explain a bit later, I even see symptoms of this lingering in some progressive Christian spaces. In this piece I’ll unwrap some of this and how some of this demonization of therapy rhetoric works, in both overt and more subtle forms, in hopes of leading to better understanding. I’ll end with a reminder that we don’t have to be doctors to do what we can to make this better.

My Background and Context

As always, I’m coming at this from my perspective of growing up PK in a right-leaning moderate church. And specifically as one who went on to become a communication professor who studies and teaches about stress, trauma, and conflict communication.

Disclaimer: Not Just in the Church, This Stigma

To start, let me quickly note that I don’t believe it’s only Evangelicalism, or even Christianity, that has a stigma about mental health treatment by a long shot. As I tell my classes regularly, until it becomes as normal for people to seek trauma therapy when their stress responses are out of whack as it is for people to seek physical therapy when they have a muscle injury, we still have a ways to go as a society.

Because yeah, a lot more people experience trauma and intergenerational trauma patterns, than we’d like to admit—most of us do at some point of our lives. And trauma, while it doesn’t always need therapy to heal, often does. Even when it doesn’t, it would heal much faster with it.

Quick Definition of Trauma

Trauma, after all, is just a response of our brains and bodies when we’re facing something that feels too much for us—and the ways it tries to keep us safer moving forward.

Blackberries That Taste like Hornets, Oh My!

The example I often use in my classes (and also talked about with Jared Byas on his podcast last fall) is the fact that when I was young—I think around 9 years old?—I got stung by a hornet while I was out picking blackberries. And that my brain for the next decade of my life made blackberries taste like hornets. (Don’t ask me how that tastes—it was weird but a real taste to me.)

Was it natural that my brain had that reaction, that it associated blackberries with hornets? Absolutely. Were there actually hornets near blackberries in the large majority of those blackberry-eating cases over the next decade? No, there were not.

Eventually my brain figured out that not all blackberries were associated with being stung by angry yellow insects, and after it disconnected that link, I could enjoy eating blackberries again.

Trauma=Not Always a Huge Thing

And trauma can be as basic as that incident and reaction. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing.

And sure, some traumas can absolutely heal on their own like that, with time. In the same way some injuries can heal without treatment by medical professionals.

Could Have Healed Faster with Trauma Therapy

But you can bet that if the kinds of trauma therapy that were available to us today had been available back then, I probably could have been back to eating blackberries in as few sessions as I had with the physical therapist when I managed to sprain both ankles last fall (don’t ask—it was a pretty dumb accident—but it was bad enough that a physical therapist was definitely needed).

Using this hornets and blackberries example, though, it seems like not going to a trauma therapist is, well, unwise. I mean, it’s not that it was a huge deal to forgo blackberries for a decade.

But Not All Trauma Heals on Its Own

But in many cases, untreated trauma can lead to a wide range of physical and mental unpleasantnesses that are much, much worse.

In many cases, leaving trauma untreated can be much like leaving gangrene untreated—which can have horrific effects. In many cases, this “just” hurts the person.

And Sometimes It Hurts Others Around the Person Too

In others, though, leaving trauma and other mental health conditions untreated can also work like a pandemic, leaving deep long-lasting disability both for the person and for many of those around them.

Also, Mental and Physical Health Connect Really Closely

In comparing trauma and mental health concerns to medical conditions, I’m not being terribly metaphorical, either.

Many neurobiologists and trauma-aware mental health professionals have drawn a lot of attention to the strongly grey lines between mental and physical health, to the point where experts like Gabor Mate are pointing out that medical conditions as widely ranging as fibromyalgia, breast cancer, and ALS may be at least in part caused by repressed emotions (for more info, see his book When the Body Says No).

What the Stigma Seems to Boil Down To

I believe a lot of the stigma around mental health conditions involves a poor conflation between the former and the latter types of mental health conditions. It also includes a flat-out “tough guy” insistence that all types of trauma and/or mental illness are the types that ought to just heal on their own.

Which, to put it incredibly mildly, is incredibly unwise.

Let’s Talk Healing and the Bible

So yeahhhh, looking at these contexts, it seems like reading the Gospels would lead one to believe that therapy, including and maybe especially trauma therapy, would be embraced, doesn’t it?

After all, if Jesus healed people regularly, and asked his followers to follow in his steps, wouldn’t that mean that conservative-leaning Evangelicals, many of which at least somewhat are willing to go to the doctor when they get sick, would feel the same way about trauma therapy if they get trauma?

Um, I wish.

The Spirituality of Therapy Stigma?

Nope. In the Evangelical world this whole stigma around therapy gets, well, spiritualized in disturbing ways.

So here we go. How is it that a lot of Evangelicals come to see seeking therapy, particularly “secular therapy,” as a devil term to be fought at all costs? (I’ve previously talked about devil terms in a series starting here.)

Back to the Demonization of “Humanism”? Again?

I’ve previously talked about “humanism” as a devil term for conservative-leaning Christians here, highlighting the ways in which something that is really closely overlapping with the idea of “love your neighbor as yourself” becomes the enemy. In my view, the demonization of the kind of healing that comes through therapy is very very similar to this move.

Ohhhh Wait, Therapy is VULNERABLE

Here’s what it comes down to, though: I believe “secular” therapy often gets demonized for many of the same reasons it gets demonized outside of the church: it’s a vulnerable process.

And in a world run by unhealthy systems that try to leave no room for healthy vulnerability, well, that’s soooo not cool.

In the church, the call to avoid “idols” is too often interpreted to “only be vulnerable to God”—or, and here’s the rub, to ALWAYS be vulnerable and submissive to people who claim to speak for God, and never to anyone else.

Note that it’s the “people who claim to speak for God” part that can get really tricky.

Avoiding Accountability? Sigh.

So yeah. In the strains of Christianity that are more authoritarian in nature, therapy is often demonized specifically because it can lead to a form of accountability to those in the church, especially for unhealthy spiritualizations of abuse patterns, or patterns that allow space for abuse to hide and persist in Christian systems and structures.

See, going to therapy, and especially to a therapist that doesn’t see the church as a god term to be defended at all costs, often means that a person may unlearn unhealthy patterns learned in the church.

 It also forces people to confront the ways unhealthy patterns too often thrive under many unhealthy church teachings and in unhealthy church settings.

Too Often Allowing Abuse to Fester

Take the way abuse gets normalized when accommodation is taken as the highest form of spirituality, for instance.  (I’ve talked about this previously here.)

See, if churches make it normative that women and people in minority populations are taught along with those most in power have to “submit,” it’s only one step from there to believe that’s it’s actively a *sin* to draw attention to unhealthy behaviors in leaders. (Behaviors that often are actively causing trauma in others.)

Of course this is going to create an unhealthy breeding ground for abuse, especially by those in charge, this kind of thing.

Therapists as “Outsider Prophets”

And who’s likely to actually help name abuse dynamics when they see them happening, and to help people process what they’ve been through, and try to move toward making their own decisions about how to move forward?

That’s right: therapists.

And who would be least likely to see leaders in the church as some sort of holy mouthpiece automatically without error?

That’s right: therapists—especially those considered to be “secular therapists.”

A Bit Harder to Figure Out in My Right-Leaning Moderate Upbringing

It’s not rocket science, unpacking this particular stigma, I must say.

But it was a bit harder to suss out where I grew up. See, my denomination’s favored “Christian counselors” often actually were certified through secular organizations.

This meant that a lot of Christian counselors in my denomination were actually screened by outside organizations.

Not Such a Hard Line Between “Christian” and “Secular” Knowledge

That meant there wasn’t as hard a line between “Christian knowledge” and “secular knowledge” in my denomination as there is further to the right.

There was a general sort of awareness that unhealthy forms of spirituality existed, sure. You heard of what you believed were isolated cases.

And you knew of people who did need to be treated by these organizations. They were viewed askance, however, in many cases, especially in the more conservative-leaning side of the denomination.

It definitely wasn’t something, at least when I was growing up, that a lot of people went to therapy as a regular practice.

Therapy as an “ER only” Sort of Thing

There was a general suspicion—not by all, but by enough people—that if you just engaged in enough spiritual practices, or spiritualized mental health practices (and often only the ones learned through the “Christian counselors,” who seemed to work like a filter on the “secular knowledge” they picked up, to strain out the impurities), you really ought not need therapy unless you got so bad you were clearly one of those edge cases.

Ah, Churchy Exceptionalism Again?

So yeah, ironically, if you stripped all the spiritual language off it, this idea came down both to a fear that going to therapy meant you were weak—or even “less spiritual” than other folx.

And yeah, there were exceptions—many of these therapists actually were able to distinguish between someone who fasted as a regular spiritual practice and someone who took it too far, for instance. But that was seen to be an edge case phenomenon (after all, most of my denomination found fasting “too showy” anyway).

And yeah, the stigma against mental health has gradually lessened in some of the kinds of churches in my denomination in recent decades. Not so much in the more conservative-leaning parts of the denomination, though.

The Strong Association Between Mental Health Stigma and COVID Minimization

It should not be a shocker that these same more conservative parts of the denomination are also the ones who have been working harder to flout pandemic regulations and avoid COVID vaccinations than the more progressive churches. Or the ones who are unlikely to address abuse in their congregrations.

Oh Good, the Secular Mental Health Stigma with Spiritual Trauma on Top!

So yeah, the problem here in at least the denomination I was raised in, and definitely the more the more conservative the churches to our theological and political right got, is that we have that good old fashioned stigma around therapy, but with a big old helping of spiritual abuse and trauma like the cherry on top of a sundae.

Progressive Churches Not Fully Immune from This Plague

And I still see some strands of this in more progressive churches too. They’re not fully immune from this—and often these churches have politically “purple” congregations, with congregants that fall on both sides of the religio-political divides on this and other issues.

Casserole Vs. Uncasserole Situations

A lot of times this will come up in the forms of prayer requests that will or will not get made publicly and how people respond to them, and especially how people with spiritual trauma get treated.

So and so broke their hip? Sure, we’ll go visit them. In my white Midwestern neck of the woods, that probably would warrant the bringing of casseroles as well.

So and so is struggling with spiritual trauma or mental health issues and struggles with coming to church? I’ve sometimes, but rarely, seen that legitimized as a “real” thing worthy of visits or casseroles or even staying in touch.

In fact, I can’t tell you how many people I know in this situation who only ever heard from their (former) friends from church when there was some sort of invitation to coffee that hid some sort of evangelism message in it.

Gangrene Lurking Under the Surface

Because yeah, the whole idea boils down to the idea that if you need a therapist, if you’re struggling with trauma, you might not really be as worthy of care somehow.  

Ouch. That’s really unpleasant—and actually may be a form of gangrene lurking under the surface of many churches.

We Can Make a Difference Where We Are, Either In or Out of Places of Worship

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. There are, after all, lots of treatments for gangrene—and when it comes to healthier environments either in or out of churches, we don’t need to be a doctor to address the issues. Let’s do what we can to make a change, friends!

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to make a better world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for some consulting to help with this kind of spirituality of trauma-avoidance problem in your life or church?

Get in touch by messaging me through the AS Facebook page.

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Venmo: @assertivespirituality

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When Therapy Becomes…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 11 min