“Troubled Minds”: Mental Illness and the Church’s Failure to Address it

Mental illness is on our minds.

Recently, Matthew Warren, son of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, took his own life after a long struggle with severe mental illness. This tragedy, directly impacting “America’s pastor,” has brought the discussion of mental illness to the forefront (and, predictably, has also given occasion for the ignorant, un-sympathetic mouthpieces of the ongoing stigma of mental illness).

Amy Simpson in her recent book Troubled Minds, gives church leaders an invaluable resource for understanding and engaging the problem of mental illness head-on. Churches ought not lag behind the rest of culture in dealing with pervasive problems like mental illness, which can tragically effect and delimit the functioning of persons in their jobs, their relationships, their families, and in their spiritual growth.

She asks,

If mental illness and successful treatment are so common in our society, why is mental illness still stigmatized and avoided in the church? Why is it met with wide-eyed panic and awkward avoidance at best? (136)

In this question, Simpson drives at the heart of the disconnect between acknowledgment of the problem and unwillingness (or unpreparedness) to confront it. 80% of church leaders, she tells us, believe mental illness is a “real, treatable, and manageable illness caused by genetic, biological or environmental factors, and yet only 12.5% of them said mental illness is “openly discussed in a healthy way in their church” (142).

Simpson’s book includes her own heart-wrenching reflections as she and her family struggled with her mother’s schizophrenia, whose mania and psychotic breaks with reality landed her in and out of hospitals and prison. The book also weaves numerous stories of others who have dealt with family members and friends with other forms of severe mental illness.

The point of it is to show that mental illness is surprisingly “mainstream,” and yet is continually repressed by our collective culture; it is too difficult, too mysterious, and too uncomfortable to positively engage. And yet, if church leaders cannot take the lead in addressing it and bringing it into the open, how can they claim to be doing the very sorts of things the Bible calls them to do (i.e., loving, accepting, and serving the neediest and most marginalized among us)?

Simpson suggests many practical things church leaders and churches can do, but at the center of it all a recognition is needed: Mental illness is a physical problem. It results not as a direct consequence of sin or from demonic possession, but reflects an injury to or sickness of the brain–a physical, material organ.

This, of course, raises all sorts of possible discussion regarding the relation between the “spiritual” and the “physical,” the “mind” and the brain, the body and the soul, the physical and the metaphysical. And there are deeper issues at play regarding the relation between the physical and the metaphysical, which far exceed the discussion of mental illness and have to do with the nature of evil, the interplay of divine providence and human activity, spiritual realities and their intersection with the physical, etc. But if engagement with the problem of mental illness is going to move forward in a positive way in the churches, the stigma of mental illness needs to be addressed and the very real, very material problem of sickness of the brain needs to be given serious reflection in the very communities that can gather around the sick and the broken with love and compassion.

It seems that church leaders recognize the reality of mental illness. The challenge lies in creating or facilitating environments that address it constructively.



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About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Associate Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, supported by the Schilling Endowment, at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: 2014-10-14 10.26.51Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and a book about the virgin birth (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)