Great question. I’m an experimental psychologist–a researcher–so I’m not a mental health professional. That makes it somewhat easier and harder for me to make judgments in this regard. Easy because I’m unaffected by my opinions in this matter. Hard because, well, I’m unaffected by my opinions in this matter.
But to get to your question. Ideally the community of faith should be a place where mental health issues are dealt with. That might be hard for people to grasp, but psychotherapy as we know it today has been around since, what, the 1960s? Though of course people have been institutionalized for psychiatric issues for hundreds of years, what I’m talking about is outpatient therapy for what we would call “problems with living.”
All that to say, the “mental health industry” hasn’t been around all that long.
Of course that might just mean that care for mental health has been improving. I’d agree. I’m just pointing out that communities and families have a long history of caring for the mentally ill so it’s not all that strange to imagine a shift back in that direction as long as that care was good.
But here’s the rub, most American churches just aren’t equipped to do this work. And I don’t mean in regards to specialized training, though that is a part of it. I’m speaking to how churches are generally not comprised of individuals willing to invest in and be interrupted by the daily work of caring for very, very needy people. Such communities do exist–the L’Arche model comes to mind–but few local church communities are set up that way. Nor, sadly, do I think many Christians would sign up to be a part of such a church. My point being, yes, there is a vision out there where the community can help their emotional suffering friends and loved ones, but few of these communities actually exist.
And so a market-based alternative steps in, the mental health profession, where you pay for these services. It’s not unlike how hospitality used to be given by individuals in their own homes–and Christians were once widely recognized for their services in this regard–but now a hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants) has taken over. Same goes for the funeral industry.
Can a Christian participate in the mental health industry? I’d say sure they could. Does it represent the Christian ideal of love and care for others? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to offer those services if that industry exists. You’d just not describe what you do for a living as the ideal expression of Christian agape. And neither would a cook in a restaurant in the hospitality industry. Or a nurse in a hospital. Or in any other service or health industry.
What a lot of Christian mental health professionals do, though, is work with their churches to provide care for those within their churches for free or very reduced rates. They also function as resource people within the church. That is, they don’t restrict their skills to the marketplace. They try to share those skills freely. Regardless, that work is spotty. So it all goes back to if the community, as a whole, is willing to radically reconfigure and invest in how they care for each other–materially, physically, socially and psychologically. And until a community is formed with that in view the marketplace option will step in to fill the void, for better or worse.