A holistic approach to mental health

A holistic approach to mental health
Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon delivered the opening address at the Christian Mental Health Conference

Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon delivered the opening address at the Christian Mental Health Conference, which was held online from 15 to 16 July 2021. The conference was organised by Christian Mental Health Advocates, Association of Christian Counsellors Singapore & Promises Healthcare. Recordings of some of the proceedings, speakers’ slides and a mental health resources kit are available at

When Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon was doing his doctoral research at Edinburgh University from 1991 to 1992, he decided to focus on the topic of demon possession. He wanted to make sense of what he had seen as overlaps in his training as a medical doctor and experience as a pastor. His research included field studies in Singapore as well as the examination of literature in theology, pastoral care, psychiatry, psychology and cultural anthropology.1

He recalled how, after he returned to Singapore and while teaching at Trinity Theological College (TTC), two cases were referred to him.

The first was a pastor with a thriving ministry who had suddenly became very depressed. Although this pastor attributed his condition to spiritual causes, Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon’s training as a medical doctor helped him to deduce from his symptoms that this pastor was actually suffering from severe depression and needed medical intervention. Although the pastor was initially unwilling, Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon managed to persuade him to see a psychiatrist, who subsequently prescribed medication for depression and for obsessive-compulsive disorder. He then slowly began to recover.

The second was a man who was suffering from strange symptoms, which included feeling numb and “unreal” and seeing things that were not there. His symptoms were so severe that he was not able to function properly and lost his job. He sought help from a psychiatrist as well as from deliverance ministry. Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon realised in this case that there was demonic activity, and helped the man by counselling him to keep his focus on Jesus.

He brought up these two cases in his opening address at the Christian Mental Health Conference to emphasise that there is much common ground between pastoral care, mental health professions and psychiatry. They are not mutually exclusive.

Psychiatry, he pointed out, comes from “the medieval Latin word psychiatria, which means healing of the soul. The Greek equivalent helps us to understand this even better: psyche, meaning soul, and iatreia, meaning healing. Etymologically, the psychiatrist is the modern healer of the soul, a function that performed by the clergy and the healers in the Church for many centuries.” While the healing or caring ministries have been professionalised in recent decades, the clinic and the Church should work together even while they have different orientation, methodology and perhaps even outcomes.

Working together as clinic and Church

Firstly, Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon suggests a return to the Bible. “The Bible,” he reminded the participants, “diagnoses the human condition and it has broad wisdom on human nature, human behaviour and motivation, and human relationships. We must understand the authority of Scripture and its relevance for today.”

“Centrally, the Bible speaks about God and His grace—it is so important to appreciate, understand and apply this in our pastoral or healing craft. Without God’s help and His grace, we would not make any major headway in bringing healing to people.”

Secondly, he says, “there must be a mutual appreciation of each other”. He explains: “For pastors, there must be an appreciation of medicine, psychology, sociology and so on. It is in appreciating those areas of knowledge that perhaps we can understand how we can work together.” And for mental health professionals, “there must also be an appreciation of Christian theology and pastoral care, the role of sacraments, the role of worship and the Christian community”.

Thirdly, there must be “an integrated and holistic approach to helping people”—we are at the same time “embodied beings, social beings and spiritual beings”. He used an analogy of a bad-sounding piece of music: “The piano strings might need turning, or there could be something wrong with the score, or the pianist might not be a skilled player. A presenting problem may have to be looked at from different angles.” Different people, he says, need to work together to try to resolve the presenting problem.

As such, there is a place for collaboration and teamwork, such as when psychiatrists, counsellors, social workers and pastors work together, consulting and cooperating with one another.

Finally, there needs to be a way to build up referral networks so that people can get the help they need. That is why collaborations, such as this conference, are important, so that those in different areas of secular or church helping ministries can work together to help those in need to connect with appropriate resources.

No clear-cut lines

One of the participants asked: “What are the differences between pastoral care, pastoral counselling and professional counselling? How do these differences play out in shepherding the different people of the Church?”

Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon acknowledged that the differences are not—and do not need to be—so clear-cut. While secular professional counselling has a much more focused perspective, such as dealing with specific presenting problems, such as anxiety or marital issues, pastoral counselling might involve a more personal relationship between the pastor and the one being counselled. Pastoral care, in his opinion, takes a broader and more spiritual perspective in shepherding the soul.

“But,” he emphasises, “we must not go away with neat silos for each.” This, he says, would dissuade us from working together to help those with complex issues.

In secular situations, when it may not be possible to share the Gospel or refer to Scripture, Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon reminded the participants, “you may not be able to be overt in testifying or using words to mention God, but you can in your deeds, exemplify Christ. We can still be ambassadors of Christ in different ways. If you can’t speak, you can act; you can show in your attitude. Even if you are in a secular setting, it makes a lot of difference if you have a prayerful attitude before the person comes in, while you are speaking to the person and after the person leaves.”

“In the way that you pay attention, in the way that you exercise kindness, generosity and gentleness, I think that we are representing God, and I am sure it will have an effect.”

1 His thesis was subsequently published as Living in Two Worlds: Pastoral Responses to Possession in Singapore, Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity (Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1994).

Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Screenshot taken from YouTube