Daniel Whitehead interviewing Kathy Spooner on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Kathy Spooner

Kathy SpoonerPodcast, Podcast COVID

Episode Description:

Kathy Spooner, Director of Counselling and Psychotherapy at the Association of Christian Counsellors in the UK, shares how true Christian discipleship requires us to confront and care about the suffering and hurt in the world. She also discusses some of the challenges Christians may face in deciding whether to seek professional counselling help.

Unfortunately, no video recording is available.

Update on The Sanctuary Podcast:

During these extraordinary times, while we can’t be with each other physically, we can reach out through screens and over phones, and we can share our stories with each other. Join Sanctuary’s CEO, Daniel Whitehead, as he interviews pastors, front line workers, ministry leaders, and friends about their experience of the pandemic and where they are making meaning and finding hope in the ups and downs of this season.

Running time: 45:37

Release date: August 21, 2020

Resources mentioned in the show:

Association of Christian Counsellors

Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care

NHS (National Health Service)

Pamela Gawler-Wright, psychotherapist

Waverly Abbey College

London School of Theology

Public Health England

BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethic)

Harold G. Koenig, psychiatrist

Kenneth Pargament, psychologist

John Swinton


The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

The Lord appears to Elijah (1 Kings 19)

Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, Rowan Williams

Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Daniel Whitehead: Welcome to The Sanctuary Podcast. My name is Daniel Whitehead. I am the CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and during this season I’m also your podcast host. Today I’m joined by a friend of mine, Kathy Spooner. Kathy is the Director of Counselling Services at the Association of Christian Counsellors in the UK. Kathy, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Kathy Spooner: No, thank you for inviting me. I’m thrilled.

Daniel Whitehead: Kathy, did I get your job title correct?

Kathy Spooner: No you didn’t but it doesn’t matter, I’ll explain a bit more, yeah. So I’m the Director of Counselling and Psychotherapy. So we don’t actually offer a service, so we’re enormous. So the Association of Christian Counsellors is a membership body, so it has kind of two main kind of functions. So, one, it regulates counselling in the sense that we hold an accredited register, and in the UK we have something called the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), and so they regulate the statutory regulated people like doctors and nurses and clinical psychologists. But in the UK anybody can set themselves up as a counsellor, so what the Professional Standards Authority have done—they introduced an accredited register scheme for people in health and social care, which counselling is one. And we’re the only Christian organisation to run a register, so that’s really good. So we have about 850 registered counsellors under the PSA scheme, and so part of our job is to uphold the standards of the register, so you can’t join it unless you have professional qualification. You have to have supervision, so you have to sign up to commit to standards of practice. So supervision, continuous professional development, have insurance, and have most importantly that you work under a kind of umbrella ethics. So that’s part of our job, is to keep that register safe so that members of the public who come to us looking for a Christian counsellor, or a counsellor who identifies as Christian, can be assured that they’re properly trained. And then the other side of the organization is to really have a kind of belonging and fellowship membership, so that we support, sustain, and equip counsellors to practice well and to keep this wonderful conversation about how does my faith inform my practice, and how does my kind of psychological understanding inform my faith. So that’s the kind of thing. And then the ACC itself is bigger than counselling because we have a pastoral care arm, so we want to be, if you like, the voice of psychological understanding into the Church, and we want to be the voice of faith and spiritual understanding into the kind of secular world of psychotherapy, so we try and bridge those kind of different but complementary worlds.

Daniel Whitehead: That’s so cool.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah that’s great. You are, you are our people; this is—

Kathy Spooner: Good.

Daniel Whitehead: —this is great.

Kathy Spooner: It’s always good to belong. Psychologically, it’s always good to belong, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: It is! And theologically, it’s good to belong, so.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Kathy, one thing I wanted to chat to you about is: you talked about [how] all the people in your organization are clinically trained, and you were saying in the UK therapy is unregulated, so people can be therapists in the UK without being clinically trained?

Kathy Spooner: Well they can, I mean it’s, you know, it’s, it’s incredibly risky, but I could—I could have no training, and I could put a sign up on my door and say I’m a counsellor.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow.

Kathy Spooner: And one of the down, one of the, if you like, the negative things that have happened as part of COVID is that people have tried to offer online training courses, you know: pay £250 (CAD$431) and train to be a counsellor. And the other kind of phenomena that I’m noticing is a lot of people are offering therapy packages because mental health is big in the news. We’ve talked about this mental health pandemic following the pandemic of the actual disease itself, and so I think entrepreneurs are saying, “Come buy a bundle, you know, buy a bundle of six hours of counselling.” And I’ve looked really carefully at their sites, and there’s nothing about who they’re using.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow.

Kathy Spooner: And there’s no way you can join as a therapist. So I can’t see what standards they’re using, so you can imagine that they might be giving people, I don’t know…

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: But…

Daniel Whitehead: But you don’t know, that’s the point.

Kathy Spooner: No, exactly, and it allows it to happen. So people could be paying, I don’t know, £350 (CAD$610) to speak to somebody, you know, who might have had six weeks training. I mean, it’s really dangerous and really difficult. So the government are trying to raise awareness of this through the PSA that use professional bodies, not just the ACC, but all the other professional bodies in the UK are trying to raise awareness. But for the person on the street they’re so vulnerable to, yeah, to that. And I noticed actually I was—I very rarely watch television just because of time; I love the telly, but I don’t get enough time—but there was an advert for therapy on the television as well, and it was one of these services, a bundle service, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow. That strikes me—at the risk of stating the obvious—but that, that is a, a huge challenge for the mental health conversation in, I mean, anywhere I guess but, but in the church, I guess, because—so, in our experience at Sanctuary, reductionistic conversations can often happen in churches.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s all too easy for people to take a one-dimensional approach to a multidimensional subject, which is a person, right? A biological, spiritual, psychological, you know—all of, a whole being.

Kathy Spooner: I thoroughly agree, yeah, and a future, so—a person.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: In time, yeah, not just a person but a person in time.

Daniel Whitehead: So that narrative which, I mean, it seems implicit, that the implicit narrative of, I don’t know how it’s being sold, but hey: “buy these six sessions and we’ll fix your problems,” which may not be how it’s packaged but it strikes me as a strange and really challenging for you because you value the clinical—

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: —which obviously we value, so it’s a hallmark of our organization that everything we do gets reviewed by clinicians, clinicians who are doing the work. But that seems like that, has, what kind of conversations are you involved with around this? Are there, do your, does your organization get challenged from, let’s say, people who aren’t qualified? Do they, is there any conversation around trying to regulate these things? You’ve mentioned that there are things going on but…

Kathy Spooner: Yeah, so it comes up regularly in Parliament: should we, should we—not regularly, but I mean it came up, the last time it came up was in February in the House of Lords. And because the BBC have been doing quite a big campaign around this, and they had several radio programs on counselling and how people have been damaged by going to counsellors who weren’t properly qualified and weren’t regulated and weren’t operating under the standards of ethics. And as a result of that, question was raised in the House of Lords in February just before lockdown, and it was confirmed that the government had no plans to regulate counselling. So it is a—

Daniel Whitehead: Why not? What would be their—why wouldn’t they not want to do that? Is it going to annoy too many people who are already unregulated counsellors? Why would they not regulate it?

Kathy Spooner: I honestly don’t know the answer, but I think there were quite a lot of this—the person who responded to it in the House of Lords said, almost like: it’s a consumer’s market, that was the argument, it was, you know, and if people want to buy snake oil, then they’ll buy snake oil. And I think they might have even used that term, and then you’ve got this whole history of, if you like, sort of, counselling has—it’s a Cinderella profession. So if you’re a clinical psychologist or counselling psychologist, you go down a regulated route, but once you—when you’re a kind of rookie and you think, “Oh I want to train to help people in the psychological profession,” unless you know that, you’ve got this sense, well, “actually I’ll train to be a counsellor.” And counselling psychology, and to a degree for clinical psychology, some of the training overlaps; it’s the same territory, it’s a human being as you’ve just said who exists in time with a past and—but counselling has always been a Cinderella, so you pay thousands of pounds to train and then you find that nobody wants to fund counselling. So that’s another biggie. So the burden of paying for counselling either rests with the client who has to be able to afford it, or with a counsellor, or the counselling agency. So we have lots of affiliates who operate in a role to kind of serve people, so we have to raise funds or a counsellor has to have a sliding scale, or operate on a low no-fee or a low fee basis. Whereas beside that is the NHS with the psychiatry services, some of which involve clinical psychologists. So you’ve got this kind of, yeah, you’ve got the kind of official routes to mental health and wellbeing, but they cannot deal with the demand. So the PSA were trying to say to the UK, you know, you’ve got forty—probably with all the counselling registers together—you’ve probably got something like 60,000 well-trained, qualified, professionally accountable counsellors that can be used for this mental health crisis, but there seems to be this kind of complete disconnect about how you can fund these people to deliver the work. And then counsellors are kind of like, well, they’re squabbling between themselves, not really, perhaps that’s a wrong kind of analogy but saying, “We want to be paid.” But seeing that the problem of the payment is with the client or with the professional bodies or with someone, but actually it’s, yeah, it’s a problem, it’s a problem that can be solved. The problem of pay is just a problem to be solved, isn’t it.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah.

Kathy Spooner: But the problem of the burden lays on the client or lays on the, on the counsellor. And I would love the Church, in the same way that it tackles issues to do with poverty, to tackle the issue of mental health, and begin to fund or support counsellors working in this area.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and I know churches, I know churches here in Vancouver who do that. They have a—I know one church has a $10,000 budget a year which is given for people to access therapy, and I know the pastor says it’s nowhere near enough, but it’s a—it’s a start and it’s, our intention is to, is to increase that and improve that, so people can access it when needed. It does strike me, at the risk of stating the obvious, but it’s a, there are so many, yeah, like interesting angles that this brings up for me. When I think about, you know, basically it’s implicitly saying that clinical therapy is not like proper medicine, or it’s not like, that’s what it says to me, if it’s like—you would never, you would never have a buyers’ market or people peddling snake oil in the medical profession, you wouldn’t have people saying I’m a doctor—

Kathy Spooner: No, because that’s fully regulated, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: —yeah, and the governments say, well, “It’s up to them, it’s a free market. People can go to that person who claims to be a doctor.” So that’s profoundly troubling and the cynical part of me thinks is there—is it really an economical decision? Is it like, well, we can’t fund this so we’re just going to let it be and let people make up their own minds. But the other part of me that says, you know, I don’t think it’s enough—as we’ve said about the holistic nature of a person—it’s not enough to just keep this vocation, this much-needed vocation in isolation. So a person has a mental health challenge, and they go and see a clinician, and they’ll fix all their problems, it’s like, well, no—a person is holistic, we need great therapists and doctors, but we also need great spiritual communities. We need great communities; we need to address issues of poverty, injustice, all of these things are interconnected. And it strikes me that it’s really interesting for you at the ACC that you have this sort of, this interdisciplinary approach. So your clinicians who choose to identify, “I want to be known as a Christian in the context of my vocation”—I wonder why, what was, it may be obvious, but what was the inspiration for that? Why did you as a therapist feel like I want to bring my faith into my, this clinical vocation?

Kathy Spooner: Okay. I don’t want to lose some of the points you’ve raised so I’ll, for some of them we’ll come back to them—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah go where you want.

Kathy Spooner: —if we have time because there’s a lot in there, but no, I’m happy to say—so people will have different stories and different journeys. So I had faith as a young person, and then I probably fell out of faith around about fourteen for lots of interesting reasons, but I won’t go into them. And so I lived most of my adult life without having faith—having probably a deep longing for it but not, not really having it and intellectually not, not thinking that that would ever be possible for me. And then due to some kind of life changes and circumstances I came into a position where I could retrain—so I’d worked in IT, so I decided to train as a counsellor, and I will get to the point—so in my first training as a counsellor we—I had a conversion experience and it was incredibly powerful. And it was followed up by some other very, very powerful experiences. And the great blessing I had is that I was being, in a, I was held by a training organization that wasn’t Christian but had a great respect for faith and religion. So the training—my training tutor, who is Pamela Gawler-Wright; quite well-known in the UK in some areas—she was very affirming of the, of the experiences I had. And that was very helpful. And from that I just stopped doing all that I was doing in order to really focus on trying to discern what God wanted from my life, so it was a very difficult decision. I stopped training to be a counsellor, and I spent two years in a kind of no man’s land, which—I’m quite a driven person [so] that was really tough for me. And then I—through various routes—I had another experience that led me towards Waverley Abbey College and the London School of Theology where I trained to be a counsellor.

So for me it was part of, it was part of a very, very deliberate act to say I am a disciple. And I—my first calling is to—and this sounds very highfalutin, and I’m really not very, very holy in lots of ways but, and, you know, there’s part of me that’s saying, “You can’t say that Kathy”, but it’s true, that I just wanted to honour God and join a Christian organization and I did that, with all the fears that I may never get any work because people think, “Oh, Christian therapist—sounds a bit dodgy.” You don’t really want to employ them. So there was definitely a fear about, yeah, not being employable because I’d identified myself as a Christian. And also it was a stepping out in faith literally against the kind of normal counselling narrative which is: you don’t disclose anything about yourself to clients. So the very fact that you are a member of a Christian organization already identifies you as Christian and somehow that’s a problem, because somehow you have to present yourself as a “tabula rasa” blank slate kind of thing. And so it was stepping out of that sort of common, common kind of belief in counselling. So yeah so it really was, it was an act of faith, you know, that’s where I want to put my flag. I didn’t, you know, I didn’t know really much about the ACC, but I knew I needed to be a member of it. And people have different reasons, and, you know, one of the kind of, how I—how I would describe the organization is, actually, one is you have a belonging membership so you’re part of a bigger fellowship of people who are sharing your profession and doing this lovely kind of dialogue all the time about what it’s, what is it to be in the tribe of Christians? Very different, yeah, we’ve got really different, we’ve got Catholics and sort of high church Protestants, and kind of, you know, fringe kind of churches. And that can be a bigger difference than it can be between being a Christian and a secular person sometimes, you know, the bridge between those different worlds is amazing. And people of different, different cultural backgrounds, you know, different colours of their skin, different all of that—so there’s no homogeneity in ACC. It’s a kind of, you know, world of, that’s open to anybody who’s a professional counsellor and identifies as a Christian.

But then on the other side—and this is where we serve the world—is that there are people who want to find a Christian counsellor for whatever reason. It could be because they’re Christian, it could be because they trust Christians, it could be because God’s leading them in, I mean, often people come to counselling because they’re spiritually seeking. So it could be God’s leading them to find someone, but of course members can work in lots of different settings as well. And one of the, one of the really interesting high-level conversations, and in a way I think we have to—we have to really thank the diversity narrative around this, and some of the work that Muslim staff have done in this country is that all of a sudden people in positions of power are more open to the narrative of, wouldn’t it be good if people who were Christians could find people who were Christians to administer to their mental health and wellbeing? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? And that’s beginning and because—and also it’s beginning—so at the moment we’re having discussions with Public Health England, which is just extraordinary. Even two, a year and a half ago, you would have said that we would be having discussions with Public Health England, because of our BAME members.

Daniel Whitehead: Ah okay, yeah.

Kathy Spooner: They’re suddenly realizing that a lot of health workers are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. A lot of families have been disproportionately affected by the death of loved ones in their backgrounds. They’re now seeing ACC as a resource for that workforce, so while, kind of, mental health has been this neutral zone where it doesn’t really matter—you’re kind of like, just, you know, put in your slot and you have therapy—it’s like, oh, people need to kind of connect in ways which are different. They need to connect across sameness, ethnic sameness, Christian sameness, faith sameness, so that’s a completely different thing that’s happening and it’s, and it’s really exciting.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow.

Kathy Spooner: And it’s really, really—it’s kind of so obvious at some levels, isn’t it.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah it is.

Kathy Spooner: On some level and that lovely all the, you know, all the people that have been just uncomfortable about what faith means and is it oppressive, and are we allowed to do that and—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: —you know, is it kind of mad to kind of somehow, somehow recognize supernatural beliefs when we live in a real material universe, and I don’t know, my head can’t deal with that, are suddenly kind of saying, “Well yeah we can do that, that’s okay.”

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and this is the one—

Kathy Spooner: Go on.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s interesting when, I’m just, it’s just making me think: some certain vocal, say, a vocal minority in the Church—the big C Church—would, I know, because I know some people who do it—would sort of belittle academia, or they would go, “Oh that’s too, you know, it’s too much here.” But it’s, it always strikes me as funny that the academia or research academics are understanding the importance of spirituality. There’s all kinds of research that supports it. And it seems to me like, just anthropologically how, how a person understands themselves and maybe it does take black and minority ethnic communities to show us that actually spirituality is one of the most foundational ways I make sense of the world. So to, to just eject it doesn’t make sense on a number of levels, but certainly on an impact level for a culture to do that. And it’s interesting to me that, that spirituality is being acknowledged in many sectors because it has to be. There’s no avoiding it. The challenge is often spirituality is simply labelled as, kind of, it’s the space that you can think whatever you want and no one is allowed to challenge you on, and yet of course it’s way more than that, you know, for me as a Christian.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s way more than that. My spirituality is about, you know, walking, or walking with God, walking with the one who made and holding things together. So I think that’s wonderful, that’s amazing.

Kathy Spooner: And I agree with you, there’s—and I think this is a deeper movement of recognition, whereas I think one of the problems that I found when I was doing more teaching is that people would have a research study, for example, and they would go through—it’s kind of standard research things: “Do people feel better after praying? Yes/no.” And so in a way you get into what—Koenig has talked about this: It’s almost like at this point where if you define spirituality as good mental health, then spirituality must be good for mental health. And yet we know that spirituality is demanding of us, you know, and particularly in faith contexts, you know, to be a disciple is not to have an easy life. It’s not to have a life in which the, you know, the kind of, if you like, the secular world would say, well that’s good mental health, you know, not to restore something to kind of reduced sense of the self. it’s what Pargament talks about—creating small gods, you know.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: The God who is kindly, or you know, the kind of spirituality that always makes you feel good and balanced, and that kind of “zen” thing, you know.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, happiness.

Kathy Spooner: That’s kind of got mixed up in that zen, happiness, neutrality, and it becomes another aspiration; becomes another thing you can buy from your app, and I know that those things are helpful but they can be shallow and—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: —and, you know, true spirituality in a faith context should unsettle.

Daniel Whitehead: Absolutely. And it does cause us, doesn’t it, it causes us to ask the questions of the place of suffering, of the place of pain. It causes us to ask those metaphysical, you know, questions or, you know, around purpose, around—and that’s why we love John right, John Swinton, who, you know, would constantly—

Kathy Spooner: Yeah because he does do that, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: —he’s speaking to joy over happiness, and joy as a different thing and pushing back against that overly medicalized view of personhood, that we are more than just biological, that health and wealth are not the hallmarks of, of wellness, but, you know, to be at peace with God. And to be at peace with God means to be at peace with others, and to be at peace with yourself.

Kathy Spooner: Yes.

Daniel Whitehead: So this relational sense of wellness is really what we’re talking about, and that actually has very little to do with how much money is in your bank and how much biomedical health that you have, you know, and I can say from my experience of travelling the world and meeting people in India, and Central Africa, and some of the people who are most impoverished have been some of the most well-put together people I’ve met, people I want to be like, so yeah.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah and I think it also, it also means that we recognize that things are real. So oppression is real, so and it has real consequences, it has spiritual consequences and it has, you know, in the kind of whole sense of the world. So I think there is this call around—if you’re Christian, particularly, and it could be true for other religions as well—but that you are concerned about the poor, you are concerned about the oppressed. And it’s what—and I think one of my kind of defining metaphors is what the Pope said about the church being a field hospital after a battle and that you, you know, it’s no good just checking whether somebody’s got diabetes or not; you have to heal the wounds, and you have to warm the hearts, and you can’t do anything until you’ve done that, you know, and that’s—and so that sense in which happiness is not, you know, sadness is okay, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be angry, you know, people should be angry about what happened with George Floyd.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes.

Kathy Spooner: And other things, you know, there’s a righteous anger, there’s a proper anger, and that should motivate people to do things, so we’re not—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and…

Kathy Spooner: —storing something to make it mutual, we’re kind of empowering people to follow—

Daniel Whitehead: Yes.

Kathy Spooner: —a vocation, or, and that’s in a kind of Christian worldview, but if I was, as a person who is a, is a therapist, who is a Christian, I would, part of my, part of the way I’ve been taught to see people is to see people through the eyes of God or through, and particularly through the eyes of Jesus. That’s how I see someone, that’s how I would want my default sight to be, so I would see that anybody had intrinsic worth and value, and had a purpose in life.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes amen.

Kathy Spooner: A purpose that had impacted them, you know, and that’s where you heal the wounds, don’t you.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah it is.

Kathy Spooner: And I would—go on.

Daniel Whitehead: And it’s so—in these days, Kathy, hearing you speak, I just think that, you know, endowing people with their personhood, with their intrinsic value, with their, you know, their—every person is made in the image of God. And when we hear certain vocal people dehumanizing people, they say it’s okay because they do it to their enemies. So, you know, we see this—for me as a person of faith, I find it profoundly offensive that you would, you know, despite how terrible human beings may be to other people, we can never lose sense of the, the innate value of a human person. And that’s an ethical position, and it’s interesting to me that when you go back to the work of the ACC, you talk about this ethical—

Kathy Spooner: Yeah , framework.

Daniel Whitehead: —standard, right, this is, this is the key thing. Do you subscribe to this and—

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, these things are all interconnected.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah, and that has at its heart the autonomy of the other, so the God-given freedom.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes absolutely.

Kathy Spooner: The God-given freedom to be who you are, Daniel, you know, who you were made to be and—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, totally.

Kathy Spooner: —and not imposing, so, and I think, you know, part of my—I mean, part of what the, the problem that I saw with religion is this idea of imposing. So we impose an image, you know, so I’m a minister. When I, or anybody’s, kind of my old-fashioned understanding of, actually the experience of how things worked, is that I impose an image on you of what I think you ought to be. And you see it with parents as well, you know, and I do it myself as a—so rather than let this child grow, to be, to be who they’re meant to be, I want them to be artistic, you know, well-behaved, right, you know, whatever. So we’re always imposing this image, so rather than saying, well, “What image is this person?” And it’s really—I’m a grandmother now, so I just delight in these tiny little people who are all terribly naughty a lot of the time and think—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah.

Kathy Spooner: —wonderful! They put stickers over the wall. It’s wonderful. Look at that expressiveness, defiance and naughtiness or whatever it is, you know, but it’s that sense, isn’t it. So, and I think counsellors are really well-trained, really well-trained, and for me it’s that “kenosis” model that Jesus said.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, very good.

Kathy Spooner: “I’m emptying myself in order to serve you. I’m emptying all my paradigms about what it is to be good, or not good, or how you ought to live your life or anything, you know, so I can take on the manner of a servant.” And the image that I think is always a model for me is the one of the Good Samaritan. So the Good Samaritan came and he didn’t try and convert that person. He didn’t try and make them something else; he gave them what they needed.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: He gave that person what they needed, which was to be taken to a place where he could recover, and enough money to, you know. So, so those two are really helpful models of what, what professional Christian counselling is about. Those are the two models for me.

Daniel Whitehead: That’s brilliant. I think that, that thing where you talk about your grandchildren, and just that love you have for them—it reveals to us what it’s like for God to work with us, for a start. That’s, that’s the first piece of revelation I take from that. The second thing is: certainly with the Good Samaritan and your disposition to your grandchildren, and your children, and me to my children is: love is the foundation from which we find, we discover, encounter truth. And it has to be. So until someone is in a loving environment—and there’s all kinds of amazing psychological research which has taken place in the last twenty years that shows that, you know, that enforces this idea that we’re relational beings; we need to be connected; we need to be attached—this is, this is in the Bible, this is just classic theological standard orthodox Christian position, but it is from that foundation of connection, of being seen as we are, of being loved as we are, through which we encounter love and truth and can then make, I think, an informed position on how we’re going to interact with this world, which for me looks like walking in the way of Christ, or at least trying to.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: And being secure in that love, and I just think for you to frame your clinical work as a way of partnering with God and endowing people with God’s image, that being a driver—it seems obvious to me that it’s a beautiful thing to just, to just say, that’s what it is. I think that’s spectacular.

Kathy Spooner: Oh well, yeah, and I think, and I think that is knitted into our training, when we train, but it’s kind of knitted into, well, most of the counsellors I know. So yeah, I can’t kind of speak for every single, every single Christian counsellor, but I think the sad thing is if we look, because I know that one of your interests was in what may be blocking people who are Christians.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, what are the challenges?

Kathy Spooner: So some of the challenges, or I think people being resistant to counselling is this, well, there’s many different things, but one of them is the, the kind of inbuilt kind of schemas we have that if we’re Christian we should be able to solve our problems through and with God, and that God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t deal with, and I think that’s a really problematic point of Scripture depending on how you interpret it. Because I could testify just through looking at suicide and self-destructive behaviours that people do experience things that they cannot cope with.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes.

Kathy Spooner: And that is a function of oppression, and it’s a function of abuse, and it’s a function of neglect, all those things you’re talking about.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes.

Kathy Spooner: So if you’ve got an imprint of love from those very—I think we’re born with an imprint of love—but if that is built and you know nurtured, then you’re going to be able to be able to deal with things much better.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: Than if you don’t. And so, yeah, it’s—so, I think, yeah, so I think for some Christians they kind of hold onto this idea that—and also a fear that they will be led away from faith.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes. And I guess with it, implicit or often sadly explicit, a message that reinforces that overly reductionistic perspective that says we can fix all your problems, I think that’s—

Kathy Spooner: And fix all your problems, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: —there’s a temptation there, and not that, not that we do that, we do the opposite at Sanctuary. We say, it’s not—your journey is not straightforward, but there is still, God can still be in it with you, and is with you, with you in it.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: And there are things you have to teach the Body of Christ in the midst of that. So there is this redemptive power of a person’s mental health challenge, if it’s framed in a way that someone can get the support and care that they need in their recovery. Actually the church should be learning from people in the midst of, you know, these challenges, there are…

Kathy Spooner: And I think learning the consequences of certain types of behaviours that we are formed, we are, you know, literally formed as human beings, and that means we have a psychological part of us.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: So the—some of the kind of behaviours that seem on the surface like they’re so healing and so good, can actually be personally very damaging. So, you know, just one of them that I can remember for example, just—I can’t remember who said it so it doesn’t relate to anybody particularly that I know—was just going to a kind of, you know, a youth event, and in a kind of group of maybe thirty or forty people, being called out, you know, everybody was called out to kind of speak out things that they needed to, and talked about being sexually abused as a child in front of relative strangers, away from home with no follow-up, and all of this kind of seeing them in the moment, yeah, it’s very releasing and very healing, but it’s other things as well. It’s very exposing and—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: —you know, trauma is a real thing, and relational impacts of things like childhood sexual abuse are, it’s almost like abuse at a sacred part of us.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes, yeah.

Kathy Spooner: So, you know, we need, we need a kind of ritual response. We need the response of praying and healing and all of those things, but we need the response to explore: What was that about and how has that impacted you? And how has it impacted you relationally? I mean, part of counselling and part of spiritual direction and part of obviously the life of a disciple is personal growth as well as spiritual growth, but one of the things that counselling training teaches you is to, to not assume that your experience is the same as your experience, so you know.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: People would, for example, have in a church setting, said things to me like, “Just imagine you’re being washed in the blood of Christ.” Now that might have been a really, really healing metaphor for them, that might have been really good, but do you know what? It’s not good for me. It’s that whole thing about—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: —prayer ministry, in which if we can be more gentle and tentative and be more invitational, and so God, God the Father shows himself through the Son, and you’ve got the Holy Spirit as this interconnection, but we’ve also got God as light, the light of the world.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: We have God as Word. Now those aren’t personal relationships, so if you are somebody who’s had an experience of very damaging relationships, maybe God as the Father or even Jesus isn’t helpful, but actually to really be able then to think of light, think of God as light.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, very good.

Kathy Spooner: Or to think of God as truth or love.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes.

Kathy Spooner: Or you’ve got some kind of issues to deal with maleness—to think of God as the mother bear, the womb, the hen, you know. So, so there’s this, the Bible’s got this incredible richness and metaphors, but we tend to just focus on some and not, and not expand, but think how much you can grow personally if you think of God as light.

Daniel Whitehead: And it’s really interesting to me, Kathy, something else that you seem to be saying which, well, I would say in response to what you’ve been saying is that many of the ways we now understand personhood, particularly from a psychological level, because we’ve learnt—I think I said it before—we’ve learnt more about the human brain in the last twenty years than in the rest of human history. But when we re-read the Bible, in light of what we now know about the human brain, like neuroplasticity for instance, this idea that we can rework neural pathways to, you know, we can re-train our brains with the right environments in a positive way.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: And I think of Paul’s renewing of the mind, I just go, “Well, it matches.” And yet verses like that—in my upbringing, not because anyone did it on purpose, well-meaning people who, you know, were doing the best they could, but they sort of taught me that the renewing of the mind was only this abstract thing. It was this kind of “get zapped with a prayer and your mind is renewed and you’re fixed now,” whereas this idea that it can be a journey of recovery and God can be in—that’s the way God works, or one of the ways God works, is through a process and that your neurons can be reworked because that’s how God has fearfully and wonderfully made us—this is, this is the amazing thing about human beings, how God has made us.

Kathy Spooner: And I think we’ve, we’ve kind of created this separation, I mean, just philosophically between body and spirit, and we’ve devalued the body, but of course the body is the enabler of the spirit because …

Daniel Whitehead: Yes, that’s right.

Kathy Spooner: So it’s this kind of false, falsehood and if you look even just, you know, there’s, there’s that thing that I always love is that where Elijah runs away and where he’s tended to by the angels and he’s rested, and he’s fed and he hides away in the cave, in the holy mountain and he speaks with God, I mean that’s a model of recovery.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: That is a model of recovery from trauma. There’s a traumatic experience; you go and rest; and you’re nourished; and you reconnect with the source of your purpose and mission in life; and you chat about it, you know.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah that’s great, and God provides for him nutritionally.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: There is a, there’s a, you know.

Kathy Spooner: Well, with the angels, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: In that, that holistic sense; it’s wonderful.

Kathy Spooner: Yeah so, yeah so there’s I mean there’s so much richness of those kind of two worlds coming together, of, if you like, the kind of world of our Christian tradition, both scripturally but also, also in the experience of people who’ve wrestled with it. And if you read the wonderful books that Rowan Williams has written, you know about the desert fathers or whatever, about really connecting with what it is to be a Christian—

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: —that’s being in community, and it’s following Christ and, and I love—he always has this word of “somehow through the muddle.” And it is a muddle, you know, often for ourselves it’s a muddle. I don’t often know from one moment to the next whether I’m really going to need God or not, or just honouring myself or I’m tired, or I’m distracted or whatever, but through the muddle of this somehow, something good could come.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: If we stick to community and if we kind of refresh ourselves, and the other writings—

Daniel Whitehead: That’s wonderful.

Kathy Spooner: —that I’m really drawn to is the Catholic spiritual writers who talk about desire. Because, in my upbringing anyway desire was—you could be really suspicious of desire, so anything that you wanted was bound to be not good, you know, you would just, just you know, cut to the chase. Desire was dangerous. And these Catholic spiritual writers talk about, you know, desire, that God puts desires on our hearts, and if we can—and that’s what I think is a big thing about counselling, and I always work in my counselling practice: What is it you want? What is your deepest desire? Let’s excavate all these desires.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: And there’s a, there’s a, there’s a Quaker writer called Parker Palmer and he says, he came to a point in his life where he realised that the life that he was living, was not the life that wanted to live in him.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Kathy Spooner: And that’s a really powerful metaphor for me, and it’s almost challenging me every day, and if we trust that the life that wants to live in him, or the life that wants to live in me, is God’s life, and the other life is the life I structure to keep me safe with things because I’m frightened of what that life might be, you know, disallowed the possibility that I could live that kind of life, that I could be free, because that’s what God’s promised to us, isn’t it, that we can live a life of freedom.

Daniel Whitehead: Well, Kathy, thank you so much for what you’ve shared. I’ve had a few conversations with you before and I’ve always found them so enriching and encouraging and, yeah, just so grateful for your work and the work of the ACC in being available to people of faith and of none, and just bringing those two worlds together. I’m really excited at the possibilities there are for us to collaborate further in the future, and just—thank you so much.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey, may this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges. 

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith, it is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps, perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories, and receive support in community. 

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focussed on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. 

This podcast is released under creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it but please share it all you like.