Four Benefits of Psychiatric Diagnoses to Ministry

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, 4 Problems and Pitfalls of Psychiatric Diagnoses, we’ll let Mike Emlet encourage us to think more about the psychiatric diagnoses that are now part of our world. In Chapter 9, Emlet writes, “I want to focus on the potential usefulness of psychiatric classifications at the micro-level, in the context of one-another ministry.” He then goes on to describe four ways psychiatric diagnoses may be of value to Christian ministry.

  1. Psychiatric diagnoses organize suffering into categories that prompt focused attention. “Put another way, the DSM helps you identify patterns of experience. It makes you aware of human struggles you perhaps didn’t know existed and therefore encourages a caring and careful exploration of such struggles.” A diagnosis may identify a clustering of experiences which then “can send us back to Scripture to further understand and develop a biblical perspective of what they saw in incomplete ways.”
  2. Diagnoses remind us that this person’s experience is indeed different from mine. “This keeps us from oversimplifying and suggesting well-meaning but potentially superficial approaches to a person’s struggle….It’s easier to minister to someone very similar to us. It’s more difficult with someone different from us. A diagnosis waves a yellow caution flag that says, ‘Slow down! Be quick to listen and slow to speak! Take the time to discern the complexity of this person’s struggle as a sufferer and sinner before God.”
  3. Certain diagnoses suggest particular patterns of severity and danger. “If you don’t see a symptom within a larger context in which certain thought processes, emotional fluctuations, and actions hang together, you run the risk of minimizing potential danger.”
  4. Some diagnoses remind us of a more central role of the body in a person’s struggle. “Psychiatric diagnoses remind us that we are embodied souls. We know this clearly from Scripture! But functionally speaking, we sometimes over-spiritualize troubles with emotions and thoughts.”

Emlet concludes this chapter with the following admonition: “At the end of the day, the goal is not simply to confirm or condemn a given diagnosis but to carefully, persistently, lovingly, and biblically bring God’s redemption to bear upon people who struggle with the problems encapsulated in a diagnostic description.” The DSM is not our guide book for life. The Bible is our governing authority. But understanding where people are at, and where they are coming from in their own assessment of their struggles, is the work of biblical love and helps us to bring the hope of Jesus Christ to their deepest needs.

When a person’s diagnosis becomes their identity, we can better understand what they are experiencing and believing about themselves. We can then bring correction and renewing of mind to where it is needed. The title of Mike’s book is instructive: Prescriptions and Descriptions. The DSM may be helpful to describe human behavior, but Christ, the gospel, and the whole counsel of God in Scripture prescribe the remedies. If you are a “people helper,” and are interested in learning more, you will benefit from this book. I am currently in my second read-through.

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