Mental Health & Counseling

Retreats and Intensives – Acute Care for the Mind

December 17, 2022

Sometimes we need a hospital. When we are suffering a physical ailment—for example, an infection, appendicitis, or chronic issues such as congestive heart failure that has worsened—it becomes critical enough, at times, that we need something called acute care. The same applies for mental illness. There are psych facilities, or to use an old term, mental hospitals. These are needful at times, especially if someone is acutely suicidal, suffering a psychotic episode secondary to schizophrenia, or experiencing a nervous breakdown. These kinds of hospitalizations bring about help much faster as the patient is admitted and treated. 

The point of this post is another kind of acute care that is becoming more commonplace among us: the retreat or intensive. You sign up, attend in person, and the experience usually lasts from two to four days. Often these are run by individuals or groups who have themselves experienced whatever malady they are attempting to address. 

Most retreats require the attendee to leave “life” behind, sometimes to the point of forfeiting phone and watch; sleep on site; and take part in exercises, experiences, and processes from morning until evening. Very intense. Hence the word intensive.

There are retreats for marriages in trouble, for people experiencing the effects of past wounds, women suffering the effects of abuse. There are retreats dealing exclusively with same-sex attraction. 

Are these retreats helpful? Are they humanistic? Are they permissible or safe for a Christian to attend? Do they promote or detract from the healing that God has in mind? Does it matter what religion or faith the organizers and counselors profess?

This article is not to be the end all to this conversation but rather to open a discussion. I just posit a few thoughts here for consideration. Like everything, there are pros and cons. There are things we need to be aware of and things that we need to understand when considering a retreat. 

First of all. A retreat is a type of acute care for the mind even if the issues we deal with there are often chronic in nature—childhood abuse and emotional wounds, for example. It is imperative that we understand the brain that houses the mind for what it is: a physical organ. This organ suffers physical dysfunction as a result of early childhood neurodevelopmental disruption. Trauma actually changes the pathways neurons take in the brain. This is clearly outlined by the science of human physiology and by fMRI scans that show the actual changes in the function and flow of neurotransmitters. These altered pathways result in “stuck in a rut” thinking patterns and negative behaviors. These retreats focus on these brain pathways and strive to bring about improvements in thinking and behaviors through interventions by trained counselors and therapists. 

Consider alcoholism or narcotic abuse, a more extreme example of the need for acute intervention. These substances are often used to self-soothe, cover, hide, and mask emotional pain. Alcohol and drugs change the brain and, eventually, a physical toll is exacted on both the body and the mind. It takes a combination of physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual interventions to heal from such abuse. Someone withdrawing from alcohol or drugs often requires a stay in the ICU as the body is wracked by spasms, tremors, and pain. Patients can become disoriented and violent.

(It would be nice if Christian conversion healed our physical bodies in addition to our souls. Sometimes God does take away an addiction instantaneously. Sometimes He does reduce the physical pain and occasionally there is physical healing. Sometimes there are miracles. But miracles by very definition are not commonplace and not to be expected.) 

Retreats serve as a safe, nonjudgmental place to open the emotional and mental “can of worms.” They serve as a platform to be real, to become vulnerable, to plumb the depths of our mind. An attendee is in the presence of others who have often shared the same experience; indeed, they are often in the presence of a trained professional therapist or counselor who has experienced exactly what they have experienced. This is powerful. Their lived experience is not only understood; it is empathized with and validated. This is healing in itself. These professionals are also trained to use evidence-based practices to draw out and help a hurting person understand their wound and the negative and erroneous core beliefs that accompany it. 

Some stumble at the fact that these retreats are run by groups that do not share our faith, doctrine, and practice. I have never known the organizers, counselors, or therapists at these retreats (either through my own experience or others’ anecdotal reporting) to push their religion on anyone. In fact, they take pains to keep their religion out of it. In some cases, I have been contacted by an organizer to make sure that the process does not offend or point our people away from our faith. The faith-based retreats I am aware of focus on the saving and healing power of Jesus Christ. They encourage surrender and facing the Father God, who they recognize as the final answer. Another way to look at this acute care for the mind is to consider the parallel for our bodies: does it matter to you if your doctor is a Muslim, a Buddhist, or some other form of Christian? Likely not. What matters is their competence and expertise. In fact, when it comes to our bodies, we often demand the best and will travel far and wide to find answers. On the other hand, when we consider difficulty and dysfunction above the neck, we become rather reticent and, in the past at least, tend to lump all mind matters as a spiritual problem. 

What are the pros and cons of retreats?

There are many positives coming out of these places. Seldom is a retreat a magic bullet, but it is often a significant and impactful next step on the journey. Miracles do happen and I have been privy to those. Understanding and insight is obtained that can be life changing. Perspectives are gained. Probably the most important is that tools are procured to help with navigating life: mindfulness, self-awareness, recognition of triggers and emotions, followed by ways to develop healthy habits and behaviors. 

One negative is that some mistake a retreat for the church. Let me explain: a wounded person at a retreat suddenly finds an explanation, understanding, and validation for their problem. Not only that, but they feel profound compassion for what they’ve gone through. They may say: how come I can’t find this same feeling with my people, with my congregation, with my church? The answer is that this feeling is camaraderie, not communion; it is shared experience, not fellowship. One must understand the difference. Most of your brothers and sisters in the church have not been there; it is unrealistic to expect that your community will understand and appreciate your experience at the same level as those in a like-minded retreat. 

At the same time, it is wise if we as the community understand that the person returning from a retreat may have something to teach us. I have heard this accusation placed before a returning retreat attendee: he or she now has all the answers, they know better than us, they won’t accept our admonition, they are closed to reproof or advice because “we just don’t understand.” Does it hurt us as family members, fellow congregants, or leaders to show curiosity and allow them to teach us? Does it hurt to give them some space and allow that we may not have the answers and be grateful that they received help? A proud, unteachable spirit needs to be faced and addressed but why not build bridges first by listening, showing interest and curiosity and then, in time, addressing the underlying spirit as the Holy Spirit leads?

Another con—and it’s a mixed bag here—is that the group of individuals that meet at the retreat weekend stay in touch, often in close connection in the months or years that follow. This can be very helpful from a support, encouragement, and motivation standpoint. The risk here is that if they don’t look outside of this support box, if they don’t move on, if they don’t take their newfound tools into the community, family, and congregational arena where they can put them to practical use, then finding authentic healing will be more difficult. One example is taken from a same-sex attraction retreat I am familiar with: yes, the men who attend need each other for support at times—including the accountability that comes with it—but they are told by the retreat counselors that their healing comes from seeking relationship and mentorship from heterosexuals back home among their own people. 

In summary. Retreats can provide a valuable step in a person’s journey forward. But they do need to be considered prayerfully: is this what God is asking, is this where God is leading me? If so, then go with an open mind, with honest intent, to seek to understand yourself and God better. Come home with an open heart and open hands. My experience is that God blesses humility and a teachable spirit in the field of mental health just like He does in every other aspect of life. 


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