I walked in and there she was. A college student from the church I serve. I couldn’t turn around. I couldn’t un-commit. I could have lied about why I was there, but that’s not ethical (right?). I was caught red-handed—seeing my professional counselor.
For the last decade or so, I’ve seen a professional counselor off-and-on. Sometimes, it’s been for no special reason. Other times, in the midst of a crisis. Today, I go regularly to see my counselor and I think everyone—pastor, plumber, or professional wrestler—should consider seeing a counselor (in fact, definitely the wrestlers…because, seriously).
According to a University of Phoenix study from 2014, the majority of Americans (97%) believe mental health issues are at least somewhat of a serious problem in the U.S.
Further, almost two-thirds of Americans (62%) report that they have personally experienced mental health issues.
Despite financial barriers, lack of coverage, and social stigma, almost half of the 43.6 million American adults (44.7%) who experienced a mental illness in the past year received mental health care, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The number of people seeking professional counseling for their mental health issues is on the rise. That’s encouraging.
And yet, many professional caregivers — such as pastors, social workers, and others involved in counseling and caring for others in times of crisis — avoid professional counseling. Despite high levels of stress, the prevalence of burnout, and the need for self-care, many caregivers do not enlist professional help. They do not seek a safe place where they can process and receive input from a professional counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
I get it. The social stigma can be tough, the costs can be prohibitive, and the fear of running into someone you know at the office can turn you off to the idea quite quickly. But hear me out. There are both push and pull factors that put me in my counselor’s chair frequently. Here are mine:
1) Fear of Burnout — Stress is a normal, and necessary, part of anyone’s life. Burnout—a stress-related emotional collapse or breakdown that can result in chronic stress—should not exist. And yet, many pastors and other caregivers burn out all the time. I’ve been there, and I haven’t even been at this “pastor” thing for very long.
If you’re regularly exhausted, feeling like you don’t want to get out of bed to face the day, dreading that upcoming meeting, or wondering whether or not this job is for you, I believe you should consider seeking out someone safe to talk to about it. Your family, your church, your community, and your soul will thank you for it.
2) Catharsis and Counsel — I’ve got issues. I’m pretty sure you do too. That professional wrestler we both know does. We all need a place, or a person, where we can dump the feelings of resentment, anger, disappointment, failure, insecurity, inadequacy, and loneliness we feel in the course of our life and career. Dumping them on the wrong person can cause us, and countless others, untold anguish.
For this, a counselor is perfect. Counselors are trained to take the venting, to engage in role-playing, or help us grow as we share our vexations. Our drinking buddies, stuffed animals, and the steering wheel of our car are not.
3) Learning Empathy and Best Practices — Beyond the personal benefits of seeing a counselor, there are also professional advantages. Sitting on the other side of counseling gives pastors, and other caregivers, an opportunity to see what it’s like to sit “on the other side of the room.” As I feel those sensations of anxiety, insecurity, and of being lost, I can take that understanding into the next meeting I have with someone who’s bringing me their cares. Not only that, but I learn from my counselor tips and best practices that make me a better pastoral counselor and friend to the people I love in my life.
For these reasons and more, I think it’s a great idea for pastors to not only provide counseling to those they care for, but to care for themselves and seek out professional counseling themselves.