esus commanded His disciples, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39 NIV). But what happens if we don’t love ourselves very much? People who suffer with a mental-health illness often have a hard time loving or caring for themselves, much less for others.
Sharon Maloney, a licensed mental-health counselor at North Cleveland (Tenn.) Church of God, said churches have many members who struggle with mental-health issues.
“In church, we tend to say we are made up of mind, body and spirit, but we haven’t done a whole lot to address emotional or mental-health problems,” said Maloney. “The good news is that many churches are paying attention to mental health now.”
Maloney works mostly with those who are suffering from various forms of abuse─physical, verbal/emotional, sexual, and spiritual─and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She counsels people with addictions of all kinds, including drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and sexual addiction (such as pornography).
She also treats people for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, gender-identity issues, and family and marriage problems.
“I use cognitive-behavioral therapy and solution-focused therapy, but the biggest goal is to make each person feel safe in my office and to give them hope. Hope is an important word. Hope is the cure for suicide,” she said.
Maloney also sees clients who are dealing with a mental-health issue and have been diagnosed with other disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome.
Asperger’s syndrome is generally considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Affected children and adults have difficulty with social interaction, have a restricted range of interests, and have repetitive behaviors, according to the Autism Speaks website. Because of their difficulty with social interaction, many adults with Asperger’s receive their diagnosis when seeking help for related issues such as anxiety or depression.
Maloney is familiar with ASD since she has twin sons who are autistic and mentally challenged. Therefore, she can offer firsthand advice to those affected and to their families.
Maloney said she felt the Lord call her to counseling when she was 14 years old.
“I wanted to help people. We are a family of God, so we should be caring and nurturing to others and help those who are struggling,” she said. “There was a stigma attached to mental-health problems, so it was embarrassing for someone to ask for help. But it shouldn’t be. People with mental-health problems appear in the Scriptures.
“People need to know there is help for them and they don’t have to do it alone. God knows the people we need in our lives and He puts them there supernaturally.”
Maloney said offering professional counseling in the church can also serve as an outreach to the unsaved and unchurched. She said she has seen many people come to her office for therapy and then start attending church.
Celebrate Recovery and its Step Studies are additional powerful evangelism tools that churches can offer people who are battling with addiction. Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered 12-step program (celebraterecovery.com).
“Celebrate Recovery has been around for 26 years and is offered in more than 35,000 churches worldwide. The reason the 12 steps work is because they come out of Scripture─from 1 Corinthians 13, the Book of James, and the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. The 12 steps are not secular. They are from Scripture, yet there has been significant research on the 12 steps to back it up,” said Maloney.
“Celebrate Recovery is unique because it can address any hurt or life-controlling habit: abuse, unforgiveness, anger, co-dependency, eating disorders. You’ll find people going through it working on a little bit of everything,” she said.
Celebrate Recovery meets once a week. It includes worship, teaching, testimonies, and sharing in small and large groups. Step Studies also meets once a week, on a different night, and goes more in-depth in a person’s area of recovery.
“People only have to share in a group setting if they feel comfortable doing so. There is power in sharing with others,” said Maloney. “Ecclesiastes 4 says, ‘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. . . . Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’” (vv. 9-10, 12 NIV).
Maloney said she has been involved with North Cleveland’s Celebrate Recovery and Step Studies for seven years, and she has seen a great deal of success with people who have gone through the programs.
“I am totally sold on it. Everyone who goes through these programs loves them and they don’t regret it. There is a lot of Scripture involved in both programs,” she said.
Maloney said many people with drug addictions have to go through detox first in a rehabilitation center and then will come to the Celebrate Recovery and Step Studies.
“God’s greatest interest is in His people. Matthew 9:36 tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were weary and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” she said.
“It’s challenging but rewarding to see people’s lives change for the better. That’s what keeps me going.”