Nouthetic Counseling: A Word of Caution

Some people believe that mental illness is not a real thing and that it — along with psychology — was invented in the last few centuries.

Nouthetic counseling began with Jay E. Adams‘s 1970 book "Competent to Counsel."
Nouthetic counseling began with Jay E. Adams‘s 1970 book “Competent to Counsel.”

One popular manifestation of this belief is nouthetic — or what is often called “biblical” — counseling. Such counseling assumes that pastors and other spiritual leaders — untrained in the actual practice and science of mental health — can adequately address mental illness because mental illness in this perspective is basically another word for sin. This method began with Jay E. Adams‘s 1970 book Competent to Counsel and is currently championed by eminent evangelical Christians such as John MacArthur, who claims “behavioral sciences…are not scientific,” psychology is an “occult religion,” and Jesus and the Bible should be “the church’s only solution” to mental illness. This is the same method and mentality that respected (and formerly respected) leaders in the Christian Homeschool Movement — most notably Voddie Baucham, Reb Bradley, Doug Phillips, and Bill Gothard — have promoted for years. They have taught thousands of families at homeschool and other religious conventions around the country — and through their books and other educational materials — that mental “illness” is fake. It’s all just “sin” and “rebellion” and can be resolved through a “right” relationship with God.

This counseling theory, which has more in common with an ancient Greek cult than Christian tradition, has been directly correlated to abusive environments. Christian writer Samantha Field explains:

“This is not a rare teaching. This horrifying idea is deeply entrenched in fundamentalist teachings about psychology. Because they dismiss ‘repressed memories’ and ‘delayed recall,’ this leads them to dismiss the claims of adult abuse victims who have never had the opportunity to speak out against their abuser. They tell children that they simply cannot be abused by their parents, and if they think they’re being abused, they should just be grateful for their parents ‘disciplining them.’”

Testimonies from homeschool alumni give faces and stories to the devastating impact a denial of mental health realities can have on a person. We’d like to share a few statements from alumni who have experienced this.

The first is from a young woman named Lana. Lana says,

“I didn’t recognize [depression] because I didn’t believe in depression. I thought all one needed for mental health was faith in God and I had that. And I tried to have it more and more. I prayed and felt guilty and despaired that if I couldn’t handle school stress, I would never be able to succeed as a missionary. I also had severe anxiety — my demonic attacks turned out to be anxiety attacks, and treatable by medication and therapy. It was years before I finally got help.”

Here is another story by a homeschool graduate going by the initials RD:

“The fundamentalist worldview pops up and says ‘you can’t be depressed; there’s no such thing. You are having these thoughts, this self-loathing, because you realize how out of tune you are with God’s will.’ This only creates a downward spiral that leads to more depression.”

In some cases what a child learns about mental health and illness is directly taught by that child’s parents. Take Elizabeth’s story, for example:

“[My parents] taught us that an illness was God teaching us something, and intervention was only acceptable under dire circumstances. Due to this mentality, we were blind to the mental sickness that was creeping slowly into each and every one of us, accepting it as ‘normal’ and ‘God’s will.'”

When a child is raised to believe that something like depression is somehow a “lesson” or the result of “sin,” it becomes a form of spiritual abuse. The child internalizes that message and only feels worse, more broken, more sinful — which adds shame on top of shame. That perpetuates the cycle of depression. Miriam is a young homeschooled woman who recently graduated from high school. Here’s what she said about her struggle with self-injury:

“[Christians] taught in church that god is supposed to be the ultimate source of joy and peace. i felt a deep shame. if god made christians joyful, why was i depressed. if god gave christians peace, why did i have to get relief from a blade. i knew i was a bad christian. i knew that god must hate me.”

I knew that God must hate me. As you hear that, take a moment and ask yourselves, “What am I teaching to my children about mental illness? Am I teaching them that depression isn’t a personal failure? Am I teaching that if they are depressed, God loves them no less?”

That might raise another question: Are you teaching your children about mental illness in the first place? Because chances are, someone you know — whether it’s your own kid or your kid’s best friend — is going to suffer from mental illness. So we need to be teaching our kids not only about mental health, but the right information about it. Avoiding the issue, sweeping it under the rug, is only going to backfire.

These ideas — ideas that homeschool students and alumni have grown up with, and are still growing up with — are not only unhealthy. They are potentially life-threatening. Left unchecked, undiagnosed, and unmanaged, certain mental illnesses can become more complicated and intense, even leading to new illnesses. They can lead to suicide or other acts of harm against one’s self or others. Around 90% of all individuals who died from suicide met criteria for one or more diagnosable psychiatric conditions.

Mental illness cannot be treated lightly.