How do Christians view mental illness?

ERIN ASKS:

What are the attitudes toward mental illnesses in different Christian congregations?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

There may be trivial exceptions but The Guy sees hardly any difference on this among Christianity’s various branches.

The Catholic Church’s approach was well defined in a 1996 speech by Pope John Paul II that encouraged professionals who treat mental illnesses. His major theme was that “whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being,” with a dignity “unique among all creatures,” and is always “to be treated as such.” He said this belief applies not only to Christian attitudes and to care for the afflicted but to the duty of government to ensure necessary treatment. The pope also taught that “Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness,” which “perhaps seems the most absurd and incomprehensible” of maladies. Pope Benedict made similar points in a 2005 address and noted that mental disturbance “now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-healthcare emergency.”

A very typical Protestant viewpoint is expressed by the United Methodist Church policy as amended in 2012. It states that throughout history till today the field has been “hampered by lack of knowledge, fear, and misunderstanding.” Patients who are so challenged, as well as their families, caregivers, and communities, “are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.” Healing is “one of the spiritual gifts received from God” and it encompasses “the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental,” aspects that were all “of equal concern to Jesus Christ.” The Methodists also advocate “universal global access to health care” through public and private funding and cooperation.

The Methodists add the important caution that “sometimes Christian concepts of sin and forgiveness are inappropriately applied in ways that heighten paranoia or clinical depression,” so that “great care must be exercised in ministering to those whose mental illness results in exaggerated self-negation.” Occasionally a person who is by nature deeply religious and with serious mental problems will express the pathology in a religious fashion, which does not mean the faith itself caused the problems.

Unfortunately, there’s been needless difficulty in treating these puzzling problems, caused not by church wariness toward mental illness or therapists but rather due to some therapists’ hostility toward religious faith. As a result, an important source of spiritual strength for afflicted patients can be undercut and a  rivalry fostered that helps neither side. There seems to be some progress toward cooperation in recent times. For instance, California’s Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the nation’s largest, operates the oldest seminary-based program in clinical psychology at the doctoral level and was the first clinical program outside a university setting to receive accreditation from the American Psychological Association (in 1972).

One radical exception to such an outlook comes to mind. Scientology famously and uniquely opposes all of conventional psychology and psychiatry, charging that these professionals “merely confuse a person,… have no helpful effect,” and can turn brutal with “no thought of improvement or help” but merely making patients more manageable. Instead the organization operates a rival process known as “auditing.”  Although Scientology calls itself a “church” it makes no pretense of worshipping the God of Christianity and has no bearing on Christian attitudes.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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