This is an excerpt from my interview with Alexandra Thompson, director, and therapist of Cumberland Counseling Services. Click here to read Part 1 of our Interview: Real talk with Alexandra Thompson: Mental Health & The Holidays. We continue our conversation to discuss Mental Health and The Church
Real Talk With Alexandra Thompson (Part 2): Mental Health and the Church
At ReeCreation Ministries it is our aim to walk with other women on their Faith and Mental Health journeys. One question I always seek to ask is how can the church get more involved in mental health care? In my interview with Alexandra Thompson, we discussed exactly that.
Alexandra is the director and therapist of Cumberland Counseling Services. A counseling center housed inside of Cumberland Community Church, located in Smyrna Georgia.
How it all began
During our interview, Alexandra shared about a time when they had just moved to Georgia and started attending Cumberland Community Church. Her “heart’s work” was to meet with people in a therapeutic setting. She recounts how she was able to do that through the church.
Alexandra: Cumberland community church, is such an interesting church because they are extremely intentional about meeting the needs of their community. About becoming an extremely diverse church, not just in color, but in culture and socioeconomic status and the worship styles and things like that.
So I reached out to them. I said, “I know you don’t know me very well, but I’m a therapist. I’m not really doing therapy right now. Could I volunteer as a therapist?” And, they kind of laughed at me and said, yeah, here’s five people that you can take right now. So I immediately had a caseload. I put together an informed consent and an intake form. I just sat at a naked table with two chairs and started taking on clients in that way. In this very organic, grassroots way.
“You saved his life”
Alexandra then went on to share about one of her earlier clients
Alexandra: A married couple. The husband was struggling with his identity in a really big way. And it was causing so much stress on the marriage that the wife was having stress-induced strokes. So it was just this intense season in their life that I was privileged and honored to be able to step into with them.
Then, the pastor at the time was leaving for the day. I was coming in for the evening to start my volunteer hours and we passed each other. He looked at me dead in the eye. He said, “Alex, John* told me that you’ve been meeting with him.” *(His name is not John.) And in my mind, I was like, Oh crap, did I do something wrong? Did I mess up? Did I cause even more hurt? He looked at me dead in the eye and he said, “Alex, he told me that you saved his life.”
At that moment, I was just overcome by the Holy Spirit reminding me that I did not save his life. The Holy Spirit saved his life, but this particular church decided that it was a good thing to bring on professionals. Someone licensed in our state to be able to practice, to offer clinical mental health services saved a person’s life. And it happened inside the walls of the church. It was kind of that pivotal moment of like, this should be happening day in and day out inside the church. We should be moving lives inside the church in this capacity.
Reaching the Community
From one therapist, came another one, then two more until Alexandra was part of a team of four diverse therapists. Together they were providing mental health care both to the church and to the surrounding community.
Alexandra: And we’re not just meeting with Christians. It’s a beautiful bridge to the community too. And I kind of hate to put it this way, but to our secular community where we’re giving opportunities to people who don’t know the Lord yet. Who don’t go to our church maybe ever, or yet, to walk into a church, to meet with their clinician. To meet with the person that they’re talking about the ugliest parts of their life, the weirdest parts of their life, the most intimate parts of their life. They’re having those conversations and seeking that kind of healing from inside the church. So it just kind of hit us at some point, we should not keep this to ourselves, to package this up, make it as easily accessible as possible.
Partnering with Churches
From what was started at Cumberland Community Church, Alexandra and her team were able to develop Cumberland Counseling Services. This makes it possible for other churches to create mental health programs within their own churches.
Alexandra: We need to tell the big C church that not only should they be providing this kind of care, but they absolutely can. When they partner with an organization like us, Cumberland Counseling Centers, we handle the liability, the counselors. The nonprofit has liability insurance, the counselors have liability insurance. None of the liability falls on the church. But the church and Jesus, the community, get the credit for providing this kind of resource. This incredibly impactful resource to the community, but the nonprofit carries the liability and the church doesn’t have to worry about that.
Expanding the Vision
Beginning with the Atlanta area Alexandra speaks with as many churches and people willing to hear and learn about her vision. They have recently partnered with another church to replicate what they have at Cumberland Community Church. Her hope is that in 10 or 15 years if someone were to walk into the church and say, “‘does your church happen to have any kind of clinical mental health services?” We would all be like, yeah, because we’re the church, we care about you at your foundational level. That’s the vision.”
Comparing counseling services outside of the church
We also discussed how might a counseling service within the church differ from those found at a hospital or another counseling center?
Alexandra: The biggest thing that differentiates us is the partnership with the church. Because when we have a partnership, a church is saying we want to put our money where our mouth is. If we care about people, especially this climate that we’re in right now with COVID, I mean, we are about to face the next pandemic and that’s going to be a mental health pandemic because of what happened due to COVID. And I know churches, every church I’ve spoken to has said, this is exactly what we need right now. It’s what it’s already been on our radar. We just didn’t know where to start. So the partnership with the church is the biggest thing.
The Counseling Center also holds to these three main values
Take Care of Clinicians Providing Service:
Alexandra: I would say our three values that will never change is that we want to take very good care of the clinicians providing the service. If you know anyone, if you are a clinician, you know, the difficulty that comes with this position. You’re carrying trauma for people. You’re holding space, a really tough space, sometimes intimate space, and having intimate relationships with people all day, and that is a lot to carry.
Don’t neglect a lower-income population
So we want to make sure that we don’t ever neglect the clinicians providing those services. But at the same time, we don’t want to neglect a lower-income population as well. Because what tends to happen is you either go into a counseling center or meet with a counselor where the sessions are $120, $150, $200 an hour a session. And you love walking in because it smells like eucalyptus and there’s lemon water available. And you’re getting excellent care because the clinician is doing excellent work and getting paid for what they’re doing, getting paid for what they’re worth.
But the clinicians charging that much are really only able to meet with an affluent population and completely, missing out. I mean, if I could be selfish about it, missing out on being able to meet with such an extraordinary and freaking resilient population. Which is a population that isn’t quite as resourced as the high affluent population.
So you either get that or you get the counseling center, that’s only working with lower income, and those are fantastic too. But what tends to happen is maybe they only accept Medicaid and you walk in and the carpet smells, or there’s a blinking light that’s about to die. Maybe nobody greets you. And you might even end with a therapist that you didn’t even start with because the turnover rate is so high, but you can afford it. That’s what you’re getting. That to me doesn’t sound just. That just because you’re lower-income, you’re not getting the same quality of care.
Create Community Transformation
The third value is that through bridging that gap, being able to honor the clinicians providing the services, but also not neglect a lower-income community by partnering with the church who supplements those sessions for the lower-income community, we will really create community transformation because healing happens one-on-one. We know that with Jesus healing happens one-on-one in intimacy. And when individuals are healed, then marriages will be healthier. If marriages are healthier, families will be healthier. Communities will be healthier churches will be healthier, and on and on. We really believe it starts with that one-on-one healing relationship.
Breaking the Stigma
In addition to cost, another barrier that keeps people from accessing mental health care is the stigma around mental illness. So I asked Alexandra to share her insight on how the church can help decrease that stigma
Alexandra: I would say the first thing they can do is start by bringing in licensed therapists who are Christians to come in and lead classes or workshops, or even speak from the pulpit. Give them that opportunity to really talk about what mental health is, what it isn’t and what the Bible says about it. And maybe what the Bible doesn’t say about it. Even just to dip your toes in is to bring on some people trained in mental health to come in and start preaching, start teaching on mental health and faith and how those two things are so intertwined. The church has to see itself as a healing space and a healing community for people who don’t even know the Lord yet, we still have to be that.
That’s why having a clinical counseling center inside the walls of a church, for, if somebody’s just wandering around the community, wondering where they can maybe seek these kinds of services, and being able to say, “friend, we’ve got a counseling center right down the hall or upstairs. Do you want to go in and see if you can get on the schedule and meet with a therapist and then come back on Sunday and hear the word from our pastor?” Like those two things hand in hand will help to heal, will help to bring you on a healing journey emotionally and mentally, and then come back on Sunday and we will help to bring you on a healing journey spiritually.
Meeting the needs of the community
Alexandra: We surveyed our community at large and we found that across the community, the number one place a person will go to in times of trouble is the church. And anyone who has ever worked for a church served at a church, we know that that’s true. Anyone in the community in times of trouble, if their marriage is rocky, if they’re struggling with their teenager, if they’ve lost a job and they need money, if they need food, clothing, or shelter, they go to the church and our community just proved that that’s true. The number one place people go to in times of trouble is the church.
But then on the question where we ask them on a list of about twelve things, the community said that the second to last place that they felt that they knew where to go to access if they needed this resource was mental health. So here is this survey of a sample size of our community, this survey has shown us that the number one place people will go to in times of trouble is the church, but almost the last place that they know where to go for this service is mental health.
My goodness, I’m in the South, in the Bible belt, where there’s a church on every corner. If we could blend mental health services with the church, we can handle that problem immediately. And show the community that the church is trauma-informed, relevant, professional, ethical, legal and that we care about your life, regardless of if you even know the Lord yet or not.
I would like to thank Alexandra for her amazing insights on mental health and the church. I really hope you were able to take something away that you can apply within your own church. Whether it’s that first step in educating and training to help to break the stima around mental illness, or taking the steps to starting a counseling center and create change in the community around you, whatever you do let’s take action towards better mental health care.
I truly believe when the bible talks about the church meeting the peoples needs, it meant not just the physical or spiritual, but also the mental and emotional. Let’s be a light to those around us and meet the needs of our community the way Jesus did.
Connecting with Alexandra and Cumberland Counseling
If you or your church have any questions for Alexandra, or if you are interested in starting a counseling center at your church, you can connect with Alexandra through any of the following contact information:
Alexandra Thompson: https://www.instagram.com/alexandrathompson_lcsw/
Cumberland Counseling: https://www.instagram.com/cumberlandcounseling/
Websites and other resources
Alexandra Thompson: https://linktr.ee/alexandrathompson_lcsw
Cumberland Counseling: https://cumberlandcounselingcenters.org/