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Getting Pastoral Counseling for Serious Mental Illnesses

Is a pastoral counselor qualified to handle serious mental illness?

The DSM (the manual which mental health professionals use in diagnoses issues) covers a broad range of mental health conditions, such as:

  • Personal concerns (such as relational problems or an occupational problem)
  • Less permanent disorders (such as adjustment disorders or oppositional defiant disorder)
  • Serious mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder)

While it is always important to be careful in the selection of a mental health professional, this is particularly the case when looking for someone to help address a serious mental illness.

So should a pastoral counselor be considered for counseling around a serious mental illness?

What Is a Pastoral Counselor?

Before addressing this question, it is important to understand who a pastoral counselor is.

  • Pastoral counselors are qualified mental health professionals that also have specialized qualifications and training to integrate the spiritual dimension into their therapeutic practice.

As a result, pastoral counselors are able to help someone who has a serious mental illness utilizing the same approaches that another counselor or therapist would use.

However, this does not mean that all pastoral counselors will be able to help someone with bipolar disorder or another type of serious mental illness. Depending on the severity of symptoms (present or historic), some pastoral counselors may feel that they are not able to provide sufficient coverage for potential emergencies.

Similarly, a pastoral counselor may focus their training and experience on particular issues or diagnoses and may therefore chose not to work with people who have a serious mental illness. These reasons could also be the case for other (non-pastoral) counselors. 

The Benefits of Pastoral Counseling

Studies have shown that for people diagnosed with serious affective disorders (such as bipolar disorder) there is a positive correlation between resiliency/long-term functioning and spirituality (both a well developed spirituality and engagement in spiritual practices) - as such pastoral counseling is well situated to help someone with these types of serious mental illness over the long-term course of dealing with their illness.

Especially around serious mental illnesses, counselors (including pastoral counselors) will usually work as part of a team of mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist.

A Pastor Is Not Necessarily a Pastoral Counselor

It should be noted that when we talk about pastoral counseling we are referring to counseling from a trained mental health professional -  not necessarily counseling offered by any pastor, where the pastor is not a qualified mental health professional.

Seeking the counsel of a pastor may be helpful, but should not be seen as a substitute for getting quality mental health care, whether from a pastoral counselor or another type of professional.

When you get quality mental health care, including from a trained and qualified pastoral counselor, it is possible to move towards greater peace and wholeness even when impacted by a serious mental illness.

LCAC, LMHC, LMFT
Pastoral Counselor/Therapist
Details of my broad experience is available on my website. I combine together being an ordained minister (trained at Yale and serving a church part-time in Harlem/Washington Heights currently) with background and credentials in mental health (licensed mental health counselor in New York and Indiana; licensed clinical addiction counselor in Indiana) to work with a client to find the best ways forward as they address their issues and move back to abundant life. throughout, the focus is on where the client is coming from.

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