Mental Illness and the Church
If you are having surgery, or suffering with chronic illness, or undergoing chemotherapy treatment, or have had a heart attack, the church can be a resource of support and help. People rally around these individuals with prayer, food, cards, and visits. But if you suffer from chronic mental illness, or have a family member who is struggling with addiction, or have a child with depression, the church has often been strangely silent. And yet, these individuals and families need the same kind of support as any individual or family who struggles with illness. What is the reason for the church’s disconnect with mental illness and how can we begin to make change?
For many in the church, mental illnesses are seen as spiritual problems rather than health problems. The assumption has often been that if you are in a meaningful relationship with God, if your prayer life is in order, if you maintain spiritual disciplines, if you are in fellowship with other believers, then you will not have mental problems. Illnesses like depression or anxiety are relegated to thought disorders rather than illness. As a result, these are perceived as spiritual failures rather than disease. The suffering individuals often feel blamed and judged rather than embraced and helped.
Another reason for the uneasy relationship between Christians and mental illness was the early work in psychology by Sigmund Freud. Freud had little place in his psychological theories for religion and even suggested that religion was not healthy for the mature person and needed to be rejected. As a result, psychology and religion were considered by many as antithetical. Even though many of these early ideas are no longer embraced, some Christians still fear that if they see a mental health professional, they will be encouraged to reject their faith.
Finally, the picture of mental illness that we have in the Bible is often presented as demon possession. Rather than understanding mental illness as an illness that can be treated, it is portrayed as a possession of the individual by outside forces. The biblical perspective did not have the medical insights that we have now about mental illness.
Looking at this brief summary, it is easy to see how the church has been slow to think about mental illness in the same was as other illnesses. But this can change. Individuals and families are struggling and need the support of their church. So, what needs to change?
I believe that the first place for change is in a better understanding of mental illness. Church members need to be better educated on what these illnesses are and what resources are available to help. Talking openly about the structure of the brain, the causes of mental illness, and therapeutic interventions can be very helpful in getting over the misunderstandings that are prevalent.
Another place for change is making mental health therapy more available through the church. Church members should be encouraged to find therapists that the church has vetted. The church can support individuals in finding therapists and even provide financial assistance when needed.
Finally, I believe that the church can provide therapy groups and support groups to individuals and families. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12 Step groups have found a place in the church, but other groups, e.g., depression support groups, bi-polar support groups, and grief groups need to be embraced and included. It needs to be clearly communicated that suffering from mental illness is not something that needs to be kept hidden because others in the church are going through the same thing.
One thing that can be agreed upon is that mental illness is on the rise and the church can be a resource where Christians can find help and support.