Category Archives: Counseling and Therapy

We’re Moving!

Greetings to all the Well Choices family! Thanks for your support over the years. It has been my honor and privilege to tackle issues of faith and mental health over the years. I see  myself as a bridge, connecting faith communities with the mental health field. My goal is, and has always been, to expand the capacity we all have to access healing and to combat the stigma that keeps people from seeking out the help they need. Over the past year or so, my passion for this topic and providing support to a wide range of people has blossomed, and as a result, there are some exciting changes coming down the pike. I want you to be here for every minute of it so I invite you to join me as I transition this blog to my new website, DrJessicaBrown.Com!

WHAT I do isn’t changing, just WHERE I do it. Please take a moment and subscribe so you can get all the exciting updates that will be coming in 2019. I even have a free gift to offer you when you subscribe: “5 Steps to Capitalizing on Conflict.” I look forward to continuing to provide you with meaningful faith-based content….at my new home, DrJessicaBrown.com! 

Thanks for reading, and let’s keep making Well Choices together!

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Picking at Scabs

When you were a little kid, I’m willing to bet that at some point, you hurt yourself. That “boo boo” (as we lovingly call them) probably bled for a while, and then developed a scab. Scabs are not pretty, and sometimes they are uncomfortable. But they are important signs that the healing process is underway. What I remember vividly about this process is that my mother chided me not to pick the scab! I don’t know the science behind this, but the “mother wit” was clear– picking the scab slows down the process. For the person doing the healing, the NOT picking is hard. Scabs are itchy and achy- they beg to be tampered with! But based on what our mothers taught us, the impending healing was worth the self control it took to wait it out. Scabs provide the protection the wound needs so that healing can occur.

Now, imagine that you are someone actively engaged in the process of healing. Your scab is nagging, itchy, uncomfortable. But you are trusting the healing process and doing the work to get better. Then, someone else comes along, and picks at your scab. What a violation! How might this interaction delay the progress you have been fighting so hard for? I want to make the argument that this is what happens for people who are working to heal from the painful violation of trauma. The trauma causes an injury and for a while, it gushes and incapacitates. Then, they begin the slow process of healing. But often the outside world is not respectful of that healing process. People don’t understand the time and effort takes to heal. And sometimes, in their insensitivity, they pick at scabs, exposing the wounds people have been trying so desperately to recover from.

Consider that survivors of sexual trauma and sexual violence are a special case. While they should be a place of protection and healing, sometimes churches unintentionally and repeatedly pick at scabs, prolonging the healing process and dampening the spirits of those who desperately want to be free. This statement might have surprised you! It is certainly not the intention of the church to hurt people. And yet, sometimes our impact is the opposite. So, let’s talk about it. What is happening and what do we need to be mindful of? It’s important to know that trauma in its many forms, disturbs the sense of safety that a person might have. For many, after a trauma, the world in general and relationships in particular begin to feel incredibly dangerous. The church is not exempt from this. I’m just going to raise a few issues, with the knowledge that this is the tip of the iceberg, and a starting point for a much larger conversation.

First, let’s talk about bodies. In this case, not necessarily the “body of Christ” but human bodies. We often do not do a good job of respecting bodies and boundaries between bodies. It starts in childhood, when we make children hug and kiss people even when they clearly don’t want to, all in effort to be “polite.” A few months ago, we all watched (most of us unsurprised) as a preacher took liberties with the body of a woman he had just met, and disrespected, on a pulpit– all streamed live on national TV.  This was not something shocking, because many of us have seen something like this in our very own churches. The church, and the black church in particular, is heavily invested in body politics. Wear the right thing. Be presentable and put on your Sunday best, but don’t adorn yourself too much. If you had on the “wrong thing” then what did you expect to happen? People feel liberties to comment, touch, and police bodies that are not theirs, all for the sake of trying to ensure that people are presentable in some way. These violations that we make with the bodies of others, unwanted hugs, touches, and comments; send clear but implicit messages about blurred boundaries and recreate dangerous situations in which survivors had their safety shattered because someone did not respect the boundaries of their body. We blame victims when they do get violated, and we participate in a culture that supports rape. Picking at scabs.

In conversations about troubled relationships, we coach people to stay together no matter what, before stopping to ask if they are physically or emotionally safe. We push people to come together with the same family members who might have been the perpetrators of the trauma they experienced. We send strong messages about forgiveness, love, and reconciliation without taking the time to learn the nature of these relationships, or whether it is supportive of the individual person’s health to be connected with that person at this time. We don’t make the distinction that you can forgive someone without being closely connected to them in the way you once were. So, what they get is: Go back to your abuser. Deal with it because it’s the Christian thing to do. Often the responsibility is put on the victim rather than the abuser to resolve the issue. Picking at scabs.

Lastly, we tend to do a terrible job talking about sex! In our desire to steer people away from what we view as immoral sexual behavior, we often make the grave mistake of denying that we were designed as sexual beings. And so, our sexual questions, thoughts, and urges become taboo and forbidden. We work to deny that we are sexualixed, sometimes with the unfortunate consequence of inappropriate expressions of that repressed nature. When we can’t even talk about it, we get very little guidance on how to express our sexuality in healthy ways. Then, when people try to talk about sexual violence they have experienced, we focus on vilifying the sex part while becoming complicit in the violation itself. Picking at scabs.

With these in mind, here is a brief list of things we can do to make churches safer spaces for survivors:

    Give people (starting with children) the permission to OPT OUT of physical contact with others and protect their physical space.
    Err on the side of believing those who report sexual violence and sexual assaults. Less than 1% of reported assaults are fabricated, and there are many more who don’t report at all because they believe they will not be supported.
    Ask people if they are physically and emotionally safe. If they say no, work to get them connected with support swiftly.
    Engage in open and honest dialogue about sex and sexuality.
    Hold those who violate boundaries responsible for their actions, regardless of status or power in the community. Stop holding victims liable for what was perpetrated against them.

This is just a starting point. There is much work left to do! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

The Suicidal Shepherd

A couple of weeks ago, my social media feed was in an uproar about the tragic suicide of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, the Pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA. The 30-year old megachurch pastor had recently taken over after the death of his father, the founder of the church. He had just come back to the pulpit after an involuntary sabbatical due to severe mental and physical health concerns. In fact, the last sermon he preached was about Elijah; his feelings of hopelessness and suicidality. He shared about the symptoms he had experienced, and the difficulty he had managing the symptoms. He spoke about the visibility of mental health concerns in the bible and the need for the church to respond appropriately to mental illness. It seems, at least, that his church did! They offered support, encouraged him to take time away, and then welcomed him back when he appeared to be well. It is clear that this community loved their pastor, and that he loved them. So what happened?

I won’t pretend to know this church or the Stoecklein family, and so I won’t speculate about what did or didn’t happen. What I can say is that the more I hear about Pastor Stoecklein and his journey, the more I am reminded of just how insurmountable a task pastoring seems to have become. In my immediate response to the news, these words came: Pastors bear a heavy burden that most of us as parishioners cannot even imagine. They are charged with executing an unconditional love that they know from the start will be unrequited. They are held to an unreasonable standard and many are simultaneously compensated meagerly. The very same qualities of selflessness and service that make for beloved pastors also make for tired spouses and parents, and worn out people who may not feel the permission to take time for themselves.

Being in the role of pastor does not mean that these men and women don’t deal with the very harsh realities of being human. They are just as susceptible to a diagnosable mental illness as the rest of us. In fact, the stressors associated with the role are likely to increase their risk. It can be difficult to manage family and home life along with the relational and administrative responsibilities of pastoring. With the possible exception of large churches with a big professional staff, most pastors are asked to manage what would in any other context be several jobs: administrative head, visionary executive, supervisor of training and development, budget manager, congregant relations specialist, and the list goes on. It’s a lot for one person (or even a few people) to manage! While the call is a great honor, it is also a great responsibility. Some of us as parishioners have this sense that pastors must be special citizens in some way. We perceive them as being closer to God and somehow more able to manage the demands of life. I believe it is a great disservice to view pastors in this way. When we put them on such a high pedestal, we leave less room for their humanness to coexist with their call. Pastors are shepherds, not camels. They can guide, direct, and support our faith walk, but it’s not their responsibility to carry us. If we view them as human guides, rather than divine saviors, there is space for them to struggle with life just like we do. There is space for us to provide support to them, rather than them having a series of one-directional relationships where they always give and never receive.

I think another point here relates to the way we as the church view and talk about mental illness, which is continuing to evolve. Inland Hills knew their pastor struggled with mental illness. He had just been away for a few months to try to get better. But I imagine that most of them had a sense of relief when he came back “Whew! That’s over!” We often think about mental health symptoms as occurring in a discrete time period that eventually comes to an end. While for some people that might be the case, for others,  symptoms are a constant daily battle. There isn’t a point at which they simply go away. There is the struggle to manage these symptoms along with daily stressors. While it’s hard to think about and talk about, it’s not necessarily surprising that thoughts of suicide come up. For the vast majority of people who contemplate suicide, it’s really not about dying at all. It’s about escaping from a life where it feels like the walls are constantly closing in on you. Often, people who struggle with mental illness feel like they are burdensome to their friends and family, so there might also be the misguided belief that their death will sometimes be a relief to the people they are closest to. Often when we help people to put some of the pressure they feel into perspective and offer meaningful support, things can feel a little more manageable.

Sometimes those of us in the church will quickly move to demonize or rebuke those who attempt or complete suicide. We see this, as we do with so many other mental health concerns, as a failing of faith. For me, this is an overly simplistic view of human suffering. The reality is that while we endeavor to have hope, the realities of life sometimes make that hope difficult to grasp. In fact, sometimes our grasp of the possibilities of what life can (should) be, makes it difficult for us to deal with the reality of what life is. This is simply to say that thoughts of suicide are not about a failing of faith; they are a sign of intense suffering and inner turmoil. Rather than shaming people for having a thought that they can’t even control, our focus can be on the passionate dispensation of hope, which is one of the key tools we have in the fight against suicide. The fact that pastors, our spiritual leaders, might also struggle in this area is a reminder that they are first human beings. Human beings need love, support, encouragement and understanding no matter how close their relationship with God might be.

So, with September being Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I want to offer a couple of notes/thoughts for how we might help people who are struggling with contemplating suicide, particularly those who are in leadership:

1. It is not worth the chance to minimize the seriousness of a mental health crisis. When you notice that you are someone you love is experiencing concerning symptoms, take action. Call a crisis line, contact a mental health provider, or get them to an emergency room. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; Website

Therapist Directories:

PsychologyToday; Therapy for Black Girls; Therapy for Black Men;

2. If you are in a position where you can offer support, do it. Be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a comforting presence. People who are suffering don’t always feel the strength to ask for help, so do it without asking. Check in on people when they seem to be acting differently.

3. Remind yourself and others to give people room for mistakes. One of the biggest challenges I hear when I talk to pastors is that they feel that the stakes are high ALL THE TIME. There is a sense that if they make one mistake, there might be dire consequences that will be difficult to correct. Maybe membership will go down, or offerings will decrease. Ministries will fail or a reputation will be damaged. While there are certainly egregious mistakes that could yield these results, some “mistakes” are simply miscommunications or miscalculations that can be easily corrected if we simply extend grace the way we wish it to be granted to us.

4. Consider how you resource your leaders: money and compensation, time and resources to take vacation, get continuing education, prepare for retirement, and see preventative and problem-focused medical and mental health care. Leaders are people, not machines. We can’t expect them to go non-stop. In fact, the most effective leaders are ones who take meaningful time away from their work.

Above all, remember that God’s word calls us to love each other and to be present and active in responding to one another’s pain.

Recall the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes 4 (verses 9-12):

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Our responsibility is to work to ensure that people in our community never feel alone! Burdens are easier to bear when someone is walking beside us. Things feel more manageable when we know someone has our back. We feel a little more powerful when we know someone is praying for us. Take a moment to do an inventory: Who might need you to reach out and check on them? What leader in your life can you pray for or encourage today? Maybe you are the one who needs support. In that case, who can you be honest with about how you are truly feeling? What offer of support can you take someone up on today. Where can you go or what activity can you engage in to get some rest and restoration. The time is now. Don’t wait!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Let’s Talk About Stigma

As you might know, May is Mental Illness Awareness Month. It’s a time when we can specifically focus on raising awareness about the multitude of issues facing those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. It is also a time to work to dismantle a detrimental barrier to treatment: stigma.

So, what is stigma? Stigma is any kind of negative attitude, belief, or behavior directed at folks with mental illness. Often, beliefs that display stigma are well-intentioned, but misguided. These attitudes often result in people with mental illness feeling judged, misunderstood, and silenced. Stigma can lead people to avoid seeking support, not attempting to get the medical help they need, or feeling that they are to blame for the symptoms they are experiencing. In the black community, a pre-existing mistrust of the medical system in general makes stigma even more dangerous. In the United States, about 1 in 5 adults will meet the criteria for some form of mental illness at some point in their lifetime. This means that if you do not meet criteria yourself, someone you know surely does! People with mental illness are not “them”; people with mental illness are “us.” Statistics suggest that while African Americans experience mental health symptoms at a rate comparable with the overall population, we are less likely to seek treatment (either therapy or medication), less likely to be consistent with that treatment, and more likely to use emergency vs. preventive services. This means that our difficulty seeking help leads us to crisis situations that are often completely preventable! We can literally save lives if we work to combat stigma and encourage people to seek help rather than trying to handle things by themselves.

Here are some examples of things you might have heard or said that demonstrate conscious or unconscious stigma:

  • People with mental illness are “crazy,” dangerous, and cannot be trusted.
  • Keeping secrets about mental health diagnoses, or avoiding the signs that something is wrong with you or a family member.
  • “Black people don’t go to therapy- that’s for white folks.”
  • People with mental illness should just “get over it” or “fake it til they make it.”
  • Using coded, disrespectful language to describe people with mental illness- “coo-coo”; “bipolar”; “missing a few screws”- etc.

While these may seem harmless, they send implicit messages to folks who might be struggling that you will not see and respect their experience, and that you are not a person who can be helpful to them. So what can you do instead?

First, it’s important to realize that mental illness is no different than diabetes or a heart problem. It’s a medical condition that is treatable and people can often live normal lives while they work to manage their symptoms. For some folks, symptoms of a mental illness are the result of trauma, unhealthy relationships, or dysfunctional thinking styles. For others, they might be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. For others, it could be a combination of the two. Whatever the cause is, there is a treatment that can be helpful, but in order to do that, people have to admit something is going on, and seek help.

Second, if you have someone who shares that they are having mental health symptoms with you, don’t downplay what they are saying. Acknowledge the difficulty the person must be having, and help them brainstorm ways they can begin to seek help. Often, the most helpful thing you can do is simply to listen and let the person know they are not alone. Pray with them and for them, AND help them to find a health care provider who can meet their needs. If you have some questions about therapy, check out my previous post on this topic. 

Third, be careful about your language. Refrain from using words or phrases that might be harmful to folks struggling with mental illness. If you’ve dealt with a mental illness or have been to therapy, consider being open about that process. One of the best ways to combat stigma is to put a name and a face to the experience! Whenever I do workshops, I always say I’ve been to therapy. It helps to reinforce the idea that therapy is something that can be helpful to anyone regardless of their level of success, education, or status. For more information on how to combat stigma, check out the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have wonderful resources, and this month, there is a special campaign focused on combatting negative attitudes about mental illness, dubbed #curestigma.

This issue is too important for us to remain silent. People’s lives are literally at stake, and we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Together, we can #curestigma and create and environment where everyone can get the help they need.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

What Therapy is Not

Last month, I tried to convince you to go to therapy. Call me biased, but I truly believe it can be helpful when you engage in the process. However, I also know that we are often bombarded with media portrayals of therapy and therapists that can give lots of wrong information about what actually happens during the process. Hopefully, I answered some of your beginning questions in my previous post; this time, I want to talk about what therapy is NOT.

1. Therapy is not a quick fix: Sometimes, people have the expectation that after one session of therapy, you will feel better. Though you may experience some relief simply from getting things off your chest, your problems are not likely to be resolved after just one session. It takes time to build skills and strategies that will help you work toward your goals. Be patient and trust the process. Most therapists will check in periodically to ensure that you feel you are still working toward your goals and making progress. I often have people ask me how many sessions I think they will need- this is a really hard question to answer because people are so different and have different needs. It might be helpful to just acknowledge that you can’t be sure exactly how many sessions you will need, but you can pay attention to your symptoms and notice when you are starting to feel better.

2. Therapy is not done to you. Your therapist does not have a magic wand or fairy dust. Therapy doesn’t happen “at” you. In order for it to work, you have to put time, energy, and interest into the process. For some people, that might mean homework, reflecting during the time you are not in session, and practicing new skills. Your therapist can’t fix you! Their job is to provide you with some perspective and resources to live the life you desire. Your job is to put in the work, enact the skills and focus on the strategies provided to reach your goals.

3. Therapy is not boot camp. Your therapist doesn’t set a goal of seeing how many times they can make you cry in an hour. It is not our intention to make you feel bad. We don’t want to push you beyond what you are capable of. However, negative feelings can sometimes be a part of the process. Our job is to be there as support, help you to understand and explore what you are feeling, and hold you accountable to the goals you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes, that means you won’t like what we say, but you should always have the sense that you can trust your therapist’s intentions are in the right place.

4. Therapy is not a friendship. The best therapeutic relationships are ones where there is a deep sense of mutual care and respect between therapist and client. However, they should not be confused with friendships. Therapy is a professional relationship where the focus is on you and your needs. That means there should be certain boundaries in place: therapists don’t share about their lives the way a friend would; we don’t spend time with clients or talk extensively outside of the time spent in therapy; we don’t take on people as clients if we interact with them socially in other circles. There is a reason for this: therapy should be a protected space and you should feel free to share anything and everything about your life. If you interact with your therapist in other ways, it could complicate the safety of the relationship. This does not mean that you don’t care about your therapist and they don’t care about you- it just means that there are rules for keeping the relationship healthy.

5. Therapy is not a cure all. Sometimes, people feel completely better after going to therapy. For others, there might be a longer term diagnosis that does not totally go away. For those folks, the goal is to build skills so that they can manage their symptoms and live a happier, healthier life. Because we are humans, we have symptoms- sometimes we might feel anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or frustrated. The goal is not always to get to a place where you have no symptoms at all. Sometimes, the goal is to get to the place where those symptoms don’t take over your life or stop you doing the things you want to do.

So, hopefully this helps you to manage your expectations. Therapy is a wonderful experience, and it can be a little different when you try it for the first time. If you are ready to start the process, go to http://www.PsychologyToday.com to get started.

Thanks for reading and make Well Choices!

So you think you want to go to therapy?

One of the things I intentionally do is talk about therapy and how helpful it can be. In faith communities and especially in black faith communities, mental illness and it’s treatment are still highly stigmatized. We tend to try to pray away our emotional concerns, or go to pastors and other faith leaders for a quick fix. While these are good steps, some issues also require the attention of a professional. So how do you know when it’s time to seek out a professional? Here’s a list of signs it might be time:
– if you’ve been tired, sad, nervous, overwhelmed, or “off” for more than a couple weeks and nothing seems to help
-if you notice you have difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach issues, or problems with concentration that can’t be explained
– if you are feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in your relationships
– if you are having difficulty managing the different tasks in your life
– if you have frequent crying spells, find your self lashing out at others, or have noticed an increase in substance use in an attempt to cope

These are just a few; the reasons I hear most often. But I should probably provide a disclaimer here: I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD GO TO THERAPY. Everyone. EVERYONE! Whether your concerns are mild, moderate, or severe, therapy can be helpful for you. One of the great gifts of therapy is that it is an invitation to take a brief hiatus from the hustle and bustle of your life and dedicate an hour of time totally to yourself. You get the opportunity to sit with a person who cares about you, but who won’t share their opinions, tell your business, or insert their own desires in the way they provide support. I can’t think of another place in life where all those things come together. It’s a peculiar and wonderful space! Yet, I understand how scary it is to enter a room with a stranger and bare your soul in such a way. So, I honor that it is a big decision and thought it might be helpful to demystify the process.

First, do some introspective work.

Why do you want to go to therapy? What do you want to get out of it? Ask yourself: If I woke up tomorrow and things were all better, what would be different? What would be the signs that my life had taken a shift?

Your answer to this question is the beginning of your goals for counseling. It’s ok if it’s not crystal clear, but it’s important to have at least a sense of where you want to go. Once you have at least a vague goal in mind, it’s time to begin to search for a therapist. Some logistical questions to consider:

– if you have health insurance, does it cover mental health (behavioral health)? Do you have a deductible that requires out of pocket payments before sessions will be covered? How much is your copay per session? Call your insurance company (or check online) for a list of therapists who accept your insurance. This gives you a place to start.

– if you don’t have insurance, how much can you afford to pay? Frequency of therapy is variable- you can go weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly, depending on what you need and how much you can afford.

– what characteristics of a therapist would help you to feel ready? Similarities in gender, race, or religious affiliation? Maybe you can check with a pastor or a friend to ask for a referral

-Do your research: Just like dating, or finding the right furniture, or buying a new car, it’s helpful to get some information before you make a decision. One of my favorite websites is PsychologyToday.com because you can search by a myriad of characteristics and specialty areas, as well as insurance provider. In addition, you can hear, in the therapist’s own words, what they believe about therapy and how they like to help people get better.

Once you decide on a therapist, take a deep breath, and give them a call. You may have to call multiple people- sometimes people aren’t accepting new patients, or maybe your schedules don’t align. That’s ok! Keep making calls until you find someone. Most clinicians will be happy to answer a couple of questions over the phone- how the process will go, what the first session will be like, how you can pay, or something of the sort.

At your first appointment, you will have paperwork to fill out, just like when you go to your medical doctor. Give yourself a few extra minutes to get all that done and arrive a little early to your appoinment. Generally the first session is focused on information gathering- there will be LOTS of questions- your therapist is just trying to get to know you! They may take notes, or have some papers they go through as you explain what’s going on with you. The goal is to get a good picture of how you’re functioning right now and where you want to go. This is also an opportunity for you to ask questions about how the process will go, how your therapist does treatment, and what you should expect. At the beginning, you and the therapist are getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other. The role of a client will be different than any other relationship you’ve had, because you won’t really know a lot about your therapist. While this may seem odd at first, it’s actually a good thing, because it keeps the sessions focused on you!

A note: At the beginning (and often throughout the process), therapy can bring up a lot of emotions. It’s normal for you to feel nervous, sad, or overwhelmed. We therapists have a special tool for if those feelings come up: TISSUES!! We are not scared of your emotions, you will not be “too much” for us, and we can handle it. That’s why we went to school! Remind yourself that discomfort can be a part of the process, and that it can produce change if you stick with it.

Therapy can be scary, but working with the right therapist is so worth it! If you’ve been wondering about it or considering a visit, take the plunge and make the call! It is a great step to take for you and your mental health. You deserve it!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!