[Interview] Pastoral Counseling Specialist: Mental Illnesses Should Not Be Neglected during Pandemic

Psychological and mental anxiety
Psychological and mental anxiety
By Zoe Zhang April 15th, 2020

Since the Covid-19 outbreak over two months ago, people have suffered from diseases, faced financial stress or experienced family conflict. People's minds have also been disturbed by panic and uneasiness, even leading to serious psychological problems among some people. Reports suggest that after the pandemic the number of depression sufferers might increase sharply. In the heavily stricken areas of Wuhan, the traumatic effects on its population of nine million people cannot be overlooked.

Recently, China Christian Daily interviewed Pastor Gu Zhourong, a pastoral counselor who gave ideas about what psychological counseling services the church can provide.

CCD: What are the psychological conditions of the people with whom you are working during this outbreak?

Pastor Gu: The conditions of many persons include anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, headache, heart palpitations, or fear of death. Some family conflicts have flared up during this time. There are also work and life issues. I got a call for help from a believer last night who recently became very anxious and irritable because of problems she encountered both at home and work. She wanted to seek my help.

This is a time in which our faith is tested. People who really believe and live a life of faith often look to God even more when encountering problems. There are also believers who have no real inner life of faith. Such believers often complain, are angry or experience panic more than they rely on God. They may find themselves caught in a vicious circle.

CCD: During the outbreak, many counseling hotlines have emerged and some Christian institutions and churches have provided similar services. What do you think of this development? As far as you are concerned, how effective is this kind of hotline?

Pastor Gu: The Jiangyin City Mental Health Association with which I work has launched a counseling hotline. I find that our society as a whole has not been aware or kept up with the need for counseling. Very few people perceive psychological problems as serious enough to require serious solutions.

In my work during the outbreak, I have found that some hotline counselors have little experience, even though they have obtained a  national secondary or third-level psychological counselor qualification. During the outbreak, these counsellors are enthusiastic and proactive in helping people online, but due to the lack of practical experience the help they can provide to seekers is limited. I believe careful consideration should be given because there are many psychological problems that can only be addressed with solid professional and theoretical knowledge combined with practical experience. They cannot be solved with mere passion.

Many churches have done well in providing a pastoral hotline during the outbreak. When it comes to matters of faith, the Church can do a lot to help. When it comes to psychological problems, mild cases can be solved by pastors. However, for believers who suffer from high anxiety, irritability, insomnia, depression and other serious psychological problems, I suggest they consult with professional counselors. There is a "principle of boundaries;" we pastors should not think of ourselves as "saviors." It is important to understand that there is a limit to the help we can give believers.

CCD: How can pastors be more professional in helping believers with psychological problems?

Pastor Gu: Many Christians think that psychological problems can be solved by prayer, without acknowledging that these problems are an illness. If local pastors do not have professional knowledge, they may associate the hallucinations that accompany deep depression and anxiety suffered by believers with a mystical Christian world of dreams and visions; the patients of schizophrenia might be viewed as being possessed by demons.

I recently met a believer who had a major blow in life two years ago, and the patient's mental state was not stable. As a result, pathological neurosis may occur in the body due to prolonged negative emotions. Physically, the patient complains of discomfort in different parts of the body, but no problems are discovered in examinations at the hospital.

There are also suspected symptoms that can travel throughout the body. For instance, it may be abdominal pain today, stomach ache tomorrow, and headache the day after tomorrow or other symptoms a few days later. Yet, no diseases are diagnosed in clinical examinations. These conditions need to be treated differently from physical illnesses because they are psychological in nature.

Helping believers with psychological problems requires a professional pastoral counseling approach. This approach is Bible-based while integrating psychological expertise. At present, pastoral counseling is an emerging field in China. The number of domestic pastors who have the National Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security certified second and third-level psychological counselor certificate is very low. Pastors who specialize in pastoral counseling in China are even fewer.

At present, there are relatively few seminaries that offer pastoral counseling courses in China. At the same time, there is a lack of professional, systematic pastoral counseling-related literature. As far as I know, Nanjing Union Seminary has invited Ms. Feng Shuxian to offer full pastoral counseling courses whereas Jiangsu Seminary offers a portion of this course. Other seminaries may have similar workshops and short-term training. In this context, we are constantly promoting pastoral counseling, wanting it to have a place in the theological education system in the country.

CCD: What are other ways to promote pastoral counselling?

Pastor Gu: I prefer aiding local pastors. Equip them with professional pastoral counseling knowledge and they may help their congregation better. God's work is not done by one person, but by a group. When I help a believer I have only helped one person, but if I help a pastor, then I may be helping the entire church or a group. If our pastors have expertise in this area and seminaries offer relevant pastoral counseling courses, they will be better able to mentor believers to deal with subsequent public events similar to the current pandemic. Believers in turn can help many in their communities.

CCD: How have you helped these local pastors?

Pastor Gu: These past years I have been invited to teach more counseling courses in some CC&TSPM churches in Fujian, Anhui, Yunnan and Jiangsu provinces.

My training focuses on equipping these pastors with more expertise in listening, empathy, and research; and how to identify common psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, phobias, and low self-esteem. In fact, the Bible is a good psychological counseling book. On the basis of the principles of the Bible, pastors can treat believers objectively and provide counseling services by using psychological techniques. That is what Paul said, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15)

When I conduct pastoral counselling training in local churches, I find many full-time ministers there are patients themselves. They also have many psychological problems of their own that cannot be solved. Their ministries have gradually evolved into a heavy burden. During these two years, my pattern is to usually do half-a-day of training and then half-a-day of practice counseling with local pastors with serious psychological problems.

CCD: When it comes to psychology, there may be some churches or pastors who have issues with the field. Have you encountered any obstacles during your pastoral counseling training? How have you faced them?

Pastor Gu: Yes, especially among some older local pastors who lack an understanding of psychological problems and are rather authoritative in their churches. Believers' serious psychological problems are collectively treated as, "You are bound by the devil."

I know a case where a girl had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in a hospital, but the elders of her local church believed that she had been possessed. So they used Christian exorcism to help her by demanding her family not let the girl out, not watch TV, not use a mobile phone and required her to read the Bible, sing hymns, and pray all day. Some loving believers went to her house at midnight to pray for her. Their methods did not cure the patient. Instead her condition was aggravated. Later, a non-ordained pastor from the same church who had participated in a pastoral counselling training course introduced the patient to me. I helped her by referring her to the Shanghai Mental Health Center. The girl was treated there for 20 days to bring her condition under control. When I was doing counseling training in that local area, the elder of that church was still claiming, "His counseling is useless. Come to me for help. It's simply a matter of demon possession."

There is another situation where pastors failed to grasp the principle of necessary boundaries, which means that believers with psychological problems are not getting the professional help they need.

Around two years ago I was invited to a city in Fujian Province to do training for a CC&TSPM church where I met a non-ordained pastor. Out of kindness, she took me home where she cared for a severe mentally ill and violent patient who had been abandoned by her family. As a result, this caused the pastor's family a lot of problems. The patient sometimes even beat and swore at the pastor and her family. Knowing the case, I helped the pastor understand her boundaries, that there are things she is not able to do. There are times when we need to seek help from the government and the community by sending the patient to a mental hospital for treatment.

The non-ordained pastor felt that we Christians should have love. However, I told her what the "principle of boundaries" was. I told her, "This 'love' is beyond your limits and has affected your family. If this patient has a violent outburst, the consequences would be very serious and cause a lot of pain to your family."

At the moment some local pastors have no knowledge of pastoral counseling and do not approve of it, which is understandable to me. It requires time for them to acknowledge this relatively new field.

(Note: Pastor Gu Zhourong is a pastor of a church in Jiangsu Province and a national second-level counselor. In order to better help the public, the pastor established a counseling clinic called "Voice of Heart.")

- Translated by Charlie Li

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