“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.

 

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/coachmeister Howard Pepper

    Thanks for the brief review of this book. Sounds like an important one!

    Your point about churches, and especially their leaders and educators, taking on mental illness in a serious way is vital. As a former minister and therapist, I observe that one of the reasons the subject is avoided is that effective engagement with it tends to undercut the supernaturalist assumptions most American churches hold about conversion and spiritual life. When God is thought to have immediate and full control over all, we seek out all the “right beliefs” and formulas thought to engage “him”. Failures of emotional and mental health are viewed as failures of our faith or our behavior or both.

    Unfortunately, there is much within “orthodox” theology that can easily make a tendency toward mental/emotional instability or pain worse rather than better. Often the most conscientious of Christians are most vulnerable. Some of the problematic concepts come directly from the Bible. But much of the problem is “self-inflicted”. And more mature persons often don’t know what a sufferer is actually thinking and experiencing. Sadly, insecurity, guilt, shame, etc. are played upon, often for supposedly righteous purposes and often unintentionally…. Again, much of it is already baked in the “Evangelical pie”.

    And, as the author points out, many are not willing to disclose “where they are at”, knowing they are unlikely to be understood or accepted for where that is. A new look at creating a more Jesus-oriented (actually more rabbinic Jewish than Pauline in many ways) theology is one step in the right direction.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Well said, Howard.

  • http://adrianwarnock.com/ Adrian Warnock

    Its a great book isn’t it. Would love you and some of your readers to join our Patheos-wide conversation on Mental Illness see: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock/2013/05/a-conversation-about-faith-and-mental-illness/

  • http://humanitysteamsa.org Humanity’s Team SA

    We need to encourage people to be open about emotional distress and this includes in the first place NOT to simply accept it as a physical illness. There is to date NO scientific proof of chemical imbalance of the brain. Surely it is criminal to sell an untruth? This medical approach to emotional/mental distress continues to have ever increasing devastating consequences for society!

    Read the staggering statistics reported by Robert Whitaker, the author of Mad in America: “The number of adults, ages 18 to 65, on the federal disability rolls due to mental illness jumped from 1.25 million in 1987 to four million in 2007. Roughly one in every 45 working-age adults is now on government disability due to mental illness.

    “This epidemic has now struck our nation’s children, too. The number of children who receive a federal payment because of a severe mental illness rose from 16,200 in 1987 to 561,569 in 2007, a 35-fold increase.”

    I dare to say that the VERY reason for the world-wide increase is exactly because of the ill-founded and un-true approach to mental’ illness’.

    How on earth have we come to simply buy in to the medical model for the answer to severe distress, confusion, trauma, troubled relations which are all very real life situations that have nothing to do with a chemical imbalance? The medical model disregards these factors and suppresses it.

    “Anyone who becomes the object of psychiatric attention, voluntarily or involuntarily, is viewed through the medical model and is subject to being labeled as mentally ill. The medical model, while based on superficial similarities between psychiatry and medicine, disguises and obscures crucial differences between them. The general and superficial similarity between medicine and psychiatry is that both are concerned with people who suffer and/or deviate from criteria of normality. The difference is that medicine deals with conditions of the body which it classifies as medical illness. Psychiatry deals with certain kinds of
    thinking, feeling, and acting which it classifies as mental illness.

    Another crucial difference is that all adult medical patients are voluntary. Their consent is required before treatment can occur. Adult psychiatric patients, by contrast, can be defined as mentally ill, involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution, and forced to submit to drugging and electroshock. The criticisms of psychiatry are based on both the logical flaws of the medical model an d the moral and political implications of its social use. – A CRITIQUE OF PSYCHIATRY AND AN INVITATION TO DIALOGUE by Ron Leifer, M.D. From an article published in Ethical Human Science and Services, December 27, 2000

    To put people in diagnostic boxes and to medicate their deepest challenges is anything but healing. This is not who we are as human beings. We are spirit, and we have the most incredible potential.

    “Sanity’ is something that is very precious to all of us. No wonder there is such stigma around having been ‘diagnosed’… what an insult. No wonder people commit suicide when they are dis-empowered like this. To accept mental illness, to take tour medicine like a good child, and to get on with life is not the same as having to accept that you have diabetes or cancer. It is NOT.

    Mental ‘illness’ is a lie and is bound to increase still.

    Once the truth is told it will never come again. Just give us the truth.

    • Kyle Roberts

      I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that mental illness is “simply” physical (thus the tensions I raised between “mind”/brain, body/soul, physical/metaphysical, etc. However, I am increasingly convinced that a psycho-somatic view of the human person is the most “biblical” (body/soul or matter/spirit are not separable, distinct essences, but are inextricably linked to compose the whole person and interestingly, this fits best with contemporary science. So, to say that mental illness cannot be analyzed, understood or treated apart from the source in the physical organ is not to say there are not complex features and related ’causes’ that are very much “spiritual” and that therefore transcend any simplistic material explanation. It’s possible (likely, even) we live in an over-medicating society in general, but it’s also true that the church suffers from an overly dualistic anthropology, which often results in a “spiritualizing” of what could be more appropriately analyzed through more empirical lenses and treated in physical (but not simplistically so) ways. In other words, sometimes prayer is not enough: treatment is necessary.

    • Lis

      So this what you would tell someone who hears voices that are not their own? What would you tell them to do? Just “cut it out” and “shape up”? Have you ever heard voices that are not there and not your own? If you haven’t, then you have NO REASON TO BE TALKING for people that do. People like you, who say the things you do, are the people that INCREASE stigma in society. What makes someone who has chemical imbalances try and kill themselves is NOT the label of mental illness (that is a relief to many people- to hear there are people like them) but being surrounded by people who say JUST THE THINGS you say.

      Do you have a chemical imbalance? Are you a doctor?

      • http://humanitysteamsa.org Humanity’s Team SA

        I have not problem with real diagnosis, but psychiatrists them-self say that they have no proof for a chemical imbalance… full stop for me. Once I have made this choice about this I was open to other options. Thankfully we live in times when information is becoming more and more available. And I continue to learn from a ever fast growing number of professionals who do not follow the road of pathology. Somehow I love to read and hear what they have to share. I for one do not need any psychiatrists to put a label on me or any of my loved ones if I can help it.

        Psychiatrists attending the annual conference of
        the American Psychiatric Association (APA), were directly asked if
        there are any scientific/medical test that could prove mental disorders were the same as medical diseases; was there any tests that could prove this? These psychiatrists openly admit that no such tests exist; not brain scans, chemical imbalance tests, genetic markers or X-Rays. So ask yourself, why do psychiatrists say one thing when asked directly, yet as a body (psychiatry) continue to assert to the press and to governments that mental illness or mental disorders are real diseases, or biological conditions on par with real medical conditions?

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=UHu7Ik36128

  • Tall Guy

    @Humanity’s Team SA Some pretty intense, black-and-white concrete claims. Here’s a link with 88 additional resources that may address some of your claims. http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/04/biological-evidence-for-depression-mental-illness-exists/

    As you know, you are responding to a book review about a book that you have no intention of reading. I’ve read the book. It’s pretty darn good. It offers multiple insights and intervention ideas to help those afflicted with mental illness. Mental illness is not a lie. Many people actually have a disease that makes them want to kill themselves. Many other people actually have diseases that causes delusions, dissassociative thoughts, anxiety and a host of other distressful/life altering thoughts and behaviors. Lo and behold, medical intervention, counseling and spiritual guidance and support can, will, and do help most of those with mental illness.

    I won’t deny the pharm lobby is manipulative and regularly flirts with unethical practices, but their dysfunction has nothing to do with mental illness.

    You did hit the nail on the head regarding stigma. It is harmful. Your claims make stigma worse. There is nothing wrong with a diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis actually is the first vital step to offer a path of healing.

  • Tall Guy

    @Humanity’s Team SA Some pretty intense, black-and-white concrete claims. Here’s a link with 88 additional resources that may address some of your claims. http://www.healthyplace.com/bl

    As you know, you are responding to a book review about a book that you have no intention of reading. I’ve read the book. It’s pretty darn good. It offers multiple insights and intervention ideas to help those afflicted with mental illness. Mental illness is not a lie. Many people actually have a disease that makes them want to kill themselves. Many other people actually have diseases that causes delusions, dissassociative thoughts, anxiety and a host of other distressful/life altering thoughts and behaviors. Lo and behold, medical intervention, counseling and spiritual guidance and support can, will, and do help most of those with mental illness.

    I won’t deny the pharm lobby is manipulative and regularly flirts with unethical practices, but their dysfunction has nothing to do with mental illness.

    You did hit the nail on the head regarding stigma. It is harmful. Your claims make stigma worse. There is nothing wrong with a diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis actually is the first vital step to offer a path of healing.

  • Lying Liars stop Lying

    “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.”

    Psychiatry has never been able to prove people they label “mentally ill” have a diseased brain, sick brain, or injured brain. Everything in this article is nothing but lies.

    I was labeled “mentally ill”. No doctor tested my brain. For you to throw us all under the bus with your brain disease lies is a seriously disgusting thing to me. If merely propaganda is enough to make you believe in biological defects that can’t be proven, GOD knows how easy it would have been to convince you other minorities were biologically defective had you lived in say, the 1940s in a certain country.

    Stop reading lies. Stop spreading lies. Just as Humanity’s Team SA says.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001664066109 Tony Roberts

    I look forward to reading this book.
    As a Christian (former pastor) who was diagnosed with a mental illness (Bipolar disorder) in 1995, I must say God blessed me (and continues to bless me) with tremendous support within the body of Christ. I pray this might be true for many others who struggle with mental illnesses.

  • Sarah

    Mental Illness is not the result of chemical imbalance or a faulty brain. There is no evidence at all for this heavily peddled lie. Please do not continue to spread it.
    I am a deeply devoted christian who is working very hard to fight against our current mental “medical model”. It is causing incredible harm to patients and their families and is based on lies of evolution.
    Our psychiatric system is forcing harmful medications, braing damaging shock treatment and even in some cases lobotomies! (yes they still happen they are not a thing of dark ages but a current medical procedure given to patients who “fail to respond” to shock therapy and medication) on people based on the lie that mental illness is the result of a faulty brain, chemical imbalance.
    There are many many other less harmful and far more successful treatments and approaches out there that are more helpful for treating mental illness than the medication/hospitalisation approach. Sadly I am yet to find one that is run by chrisitians because it appears that the chemical imbalance medical model is alive and well in churches today….this is where the church is truly failing the mentally ill.
    Fight and stand against the forced drugging and shocking and brain altering surgery of people who are suffering and traumatised. Treat them with the dignity and respect of those created by a loving God and made in his image.


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