Someone I know very well is prone to a religious form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, called “scrupulosity.” He worries obsessively over proper religious practice, especially the internal aspects such as prayer and thinking pure thoughts. He feels an unusual amount of anxiety over his thoughts and therefore engages in certain mental rituals to clear them of “sin.” Ironically, these rituals often compound the problem since they add to his anxiety, making it more difficult to control his thoughts instead of easier. Prayer is a very powerful healing technique, but as a compulsion it looses much of its transcendence. He is accustomed to spending hours praying and worrying.
Like many suffering from scrupulosity, he would never act on the odious thoughts that pop into his head. OCD is likely a biological disorder – it is certainly not a spiritual malfunction, even though it may seem that way to patients. This has me thinking: is there an unintentional bias against church members with mental illness?
We associate the Spirit with peaceful, happy, familiar feelings. As a result, we often focus our attention inwards to gauge our spiritual wellbeing, concluding that if our emotions do not match the “fruits of the Spirit,” something must be amiss in our behavior. This may be a normal and healthy part of religion, but for someone who is clinically depressed emotions are often poor indicators of God’s loving approval. Therefore, I think we should place less emphasis on “feeling” as part of our religious experience.
It seems to me that church members with all different forms of mental illness are seldom accommodated. For example, when speakers get up to give lessons on purity, happiness and other feel-good topics, they rarely consider the implications that their comments could have for members who are mentally ill. My friend is a convert to the church; and while he enjoyed the conversion process, it was extremely difficult for him to cope with all of the church teachings on thought control.
I have suggested that we focus less on feelings and thoughts in our discourse. What else could be done to help those who are struggling with mental illness feel at ease in church?