Recently, The Economist reported that "In any given year, one person in six is afflicted by a mental illness ... [yet] two-thirds of people with a mental health problem do not receive any treatment for it. In poor countries, hardly any do. And almost everywhere, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are scarce."
After painting this bleak picture, the same authors propose a solution with promising results: Non-experts, trained in the basics of "talk therapy." After a year of training in cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT), lay practitioners in England and Zimbabwe reported significant improvement in their clients' mental health, sometimes after only a few sessions. It's a trend that many health-care experts are taking seriously.
That's great news that, in light of a Christian worldview, has even bigger implications. And it points to the irreplaceable value of community in a culture trapped in individualism and plagued by isolation.
The skyrocketing rates of loneliness in our world correspond with high rates of mental health issues. People were created to live in relationship. Humanity's interdependence is a feature of how we were intentionally designed by God to both create and live in community.
One of the cruel ironies of the modern world is that, having achieved previously unbelievable levels of wealth and convenience, we've lost so much of that vital sense of interdependence. In ways that COVID-19 only made worse, our work and friendship networks — which include churches, civil societies and volunteer organizations — have grown increasingly thin. As a result, we now outsource to professionals a role previously delegated to these irreplaceable institutions.
To be clear, many mental health problems require professional diagnosis and treatment. By and large, destigmatizing counseling and mental health care have been a positive development, and the lay practitioners mentioned by The Economist had some level of training. Even so, the success of CBT suggests that mental health support can be far more accessible than many think.
In his book "The Coddling of the American Mind," social psychologist Jonathan Haidt breaks down why CBT is one of the best-studied and most-effective forms of psychotherapy. In stark contrast to our culture's dominant mood, which tells people their feelings are always right, CBT encourages people to think critically about their feelings and evaluate whether they are true.
In other words, CBT affirms that ideas, including those we believe about ourselves, have consequences. The biblical admonition to "be transformed by the renewing of your minds" is both practical and vital. Even better, God never asks us to ignore our problems, but encourages us to bring them to him and to each other and so "fulfill the law of Christ." Active, compassionate listening is in concert with another biblical directive to "speak the truth in love."
This kind of Christian fellowship has produced results for centuries. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his classic work "Life Together": "Secular education today is aware [that] a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, but Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God, that we may speak the Word of God."
The Apostle Paul encourages older Christians to mentor younger ones and for Christians to "not forsake assembling together." Proverbs 20:5 puts it succinctly: "The purpose in a man's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out."
Listeners like this are too rare these days. The damnable lie of expressive individualism is that we each have our own truth inside. This leaves many of us ready to do all the talking (or social-media posting) but not the listening. Instead of seeking truth outside of ourselves, in the time-tested wisdom of Scripture and the counsel of others, we keep looking inside and are surprised when nothing seems to change.
Within a truly Christian worldview, we recognize the legitimate role of mental health experts, but that should never stop the rest of us from acting. We should never expect the professionals to replace what family, friends and churches are meant to do: love our neighbors enough to listen.
From BreakPoint, Dec. 13, 2021; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.