A conversation about faith and mental illness

A conversation about faith and mental illness May 6, 2013

Several things seem to have come together to make the subject of mental illness and people of faith very topical.

One month ago tragedy struck the family of Rick Warren, one of America’s best known pastors. Since then many have been writing about mental health with a new conviction. Also, Amy Simpson has released her moving book Troubled Minds – Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission which is now featured on the Patheos Book Club.

May has been declared Mental Health Awareness Month, and you can read more about that on the National Institute of Mental Health webpage, here is what Barack Obama said in launching the month:

“Today, tens of millions of Americans are living with the burden of a mental health problem. They shoulder conditions like depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder — debilitating illnesses that can strain every part of a person’s life. And even though help is out there, less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive treatment. During National Mental Health Awareness Month, we shine a light on these issues, stand with men and women in need, and redouble our efforts to address mental health problems in America.

For many, getting help starts with a conversation. People who believe they may be suffering from a mental health condition should talk about it with someone they trust and consult a health care provider. As a Nation, it is up to all of us to know the signs of mental health issues and lend a hand to those who are struggling. Shame and stigma too often leave people feeling like there is no place to turn. We need to make sure they know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness — it is a sign of strength. To find treatment services nearby, call 1-800-662-HELP. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers immediate assistance for all Americans, including service members and veterans, at 1-800-273-TALK. . .” READ THE REST

The people who run Patheos have asked me to host a broad conversation about Mental Health including bloggers from across Patheos and beyond. You are invited to contribute by answering the question below any time this week. There are also two more questions which will follow.

If you write your own blog, please consider joining in. If you know a blogger who might like to take part let them know. If you don’t have a blog, feel free to write your contribution in the comments section on each of the “reply” pages. At the end of the week I will be collecting quotes and links from a sample of the contributions and posting them on those pages, and they will also appear on the Patheos book club page.

The First question is:

How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? – And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?   REPLIES

The Second question is:

Research suggests that religious faith protects against suicide. Why do you think that is in light of how your community responds to suicide? How can we tread the fine line of discouraging suicide while not making the grief of family members worse?  REPLIES


When you write an article in response to this question, it will help us include your posts if you link to it in the comments section of the posts listing replies.

You can join us for a live Google Hangout on Wednesday.

I have also written a number of times already about mental illness in recent weeks:

Please also feel free to respond specifically to those posts, or to take the discussion in a different direction entirely. Keep checking back here, or at the Patheos Book Club page to follow the whole conversation.

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  • My blog covers a great deal of what you have been talking about the past few weeks. I have been writing about my weekly experiences with anxiety and OCD.

    I appreciate the conversation you have been contributing to in the blogosphere. I really feel like the “stigma” surrounding mental illness needs to finally dissolve.

    • Welcome, Rain. Please share the address Rain so we can all easily find the posts, I look forward to reading them.

  • Adrian, so appreciate this blog and to stir more dialogue! My name is Joe Padilla and I am CEO of The Grace Alliance. We serve equipping the church in mental health support … providing real and practical support. Our groups have spread all over. Anyhow, I just wrote this blog the other day that answers your specific question. We have other blogs that address this topic. Again thanks for stirring the topic. http://www.mentalhealthgracealliance.org/mental-illness/3-frustrations-of-mental-health-and-the-church-3-ways-to-rethink-church/

  • Adrian…good topic! I’ll take on the first of the two questions you posed. The churches I’ve belonged to have done an unusually good job of supporting individuals and families impacted by mental health issues. The attitudes of senior leadership are probably the most important factor in how supportive the church as a whole will be. We need to get much better in supporting families when children/teens are struggling with mental health issues and we need to recognize the ways in which our ministry environments pose real barriers to active church involvement for large segments of our population. Here’s the link to the full post:


    Our team at Key Ministry is available to help churches serve families of kids with disabilities… http://www.keyministry.org. Joe Padilla and his crew at The Grace Alliance do a great job here in the states of helping churches to support adults with mental illness and their families.

  • Adrian: I am so grateful for your voice and passion on this important subject. In my own contribution to the conversation, I take a brief look at the Puritan approach to mental illness. It’s amazing how far ahead of their times they were and seem to have greater insight and sympathy than many modern writers/experts. At the end of this article you’ll also find links to other posts I’ve written on the subject.


  • Thanks much, Adrian. 1) I’m reminded of a favorite Tim Keller sermon (The Wounded Spirit–link below) that addresses the issue of how complex “things of the heart, emotions, and will” really are. The temptation to over-simplify and reduce issues of such complexity to a couple of handy insights, motivations, treatments, or “policy remedies” is great… and we see it all the time: We (the secular culture or even many people of faith) no longer have the capability to consider things at a deeper level. 2) My curiosity concerning the lack of consensus about cause and effect issues is this: I believe the incremental yet sure pace of secularization has left us lacking SPIRITUALLY (cause) and set up a chain reaction of potential emotional, psychological, chemical, mental, physical symptoms (effects) which now comprise the wide array of “mental illnesses”… which are more rampant every day, but are usually not treated in ways that get at the root cause: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but rather spiritual beings having a human existence.” (de Chardin) It’s very worrisome that “effects” are now the main area of concern and treatment… “causes” have been left behind as God has been stripped out of the culture for so long.


  • Our church’s Stephen Ministry recently hosted Dr. Winter to talk about his latest book. Well worth the read and having Dr. Winter to your church, para-church, etc.


  • Hi Adrian. I’m Dr. Deborah Bauers and I have been in practice for almost 30 years as a Christian mental health clinician. I’m also a part of Threefold Cord Ministries, a non-profit that exists to strengthen interpersonal relationships within families and the church.

    I believe the twenty-first century church is moving toward a better understanding that human beings are complex, made up of spirit, soul and body. The prevailing attitudes of church leaders toward both mental illness and mental health clinicians is largely shaped by whether or not they recognize and practice a responsible integration of Biblical truth and psychological constructs. Humanity is a race of spiritual beings created by God but bound by physiological, psychological and spiritual constraints. As such, Christians working in the field of mental health need to see each of their clients as complex individuals, fashioned in God’s image yet subject to the effects of living in a fallen world.

    There are many facets to mental illness and comprehensive treatment involves medical, psychological and spiritual constructs. In my most recent post I discuss the importance of recognizing that all truth, if it is truth at all, is God’s truth and essential for positive outcomes in treating the mentally ill.


    • thanks, always great to hear from another fellow doctor!

    • Thanks, Adrian, for opening up dialogue about a subject that needs to be openly talked about.

  • Amy Simpson

    Thanks for hosting this conversation, Adrian! Here’s my response, which you can find on my blog:

    My religious community is the evangelical American church. This
    community’s historical perspective on mental illness has been mixed.
    Some have seen mental illness as solely a spiritual problem, whose
    remedy is more faith, more prayer, or repentance from hidden or deeply
    entrenched sin. Others have assumed all mental illness is caused by
    demon possession or demonic influence and cause for exorcism. Some have
    seen it as cause for shame and silence, mostly a behavior problem that
    should be controlled or ignored. And still others have seen mental
    illness as just that–illness, a reason for compassion and treatment
    based in sound medicine and loving care…

    Here’s the rest: http://amysimpsononline.com/2013/05/a-conversation-about-mental-health-and-faith/

  • Adrian – I’m encouraged to find more Christians hosting open dialogue about the prevalence of mental illness both inside – and outside of – the Church. I have never viewed mental illness and Christianity to be mutually exclusive, and had not understood other believers to feel that way…until now, in the wake of the Matt Warren tragedy. Here is an article entitled “Black Dog,” that I recently wrote for http://www.ChosenFamilies.org where I am a blogger, and where other writers like myself seek to equip and encourage those living with the “hidden” disabilities of mental illness. The original post appeared at: http://chosenfamilies.org/2013/04/black-dog/

    “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” – Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

    At the height of World War II, one of the world’s foremost leaders and the champion of Britain’s campaign against the Nazis struggled with a black dog whose appearance could never be predicted, and whose mastery was never guaranteed. When the “black dog” of his depression appeared, there was little but a gleam of discernible hope preventing Winston Churchill from acting on those drops of desperation. Charismatic, popular, and brilliant with a seeming inability to comprehend impossibility of circumstance, Churchill was later speculated to have been living with bipolar disorder.

    He shared the plight of mental illness in common with some of the world’s most luminous minds, including Van Gogh, Beethoven, Handel, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Frida Khalo, and Edgar Allen Poe.

    I won’t bother to bore you with a more contemporary list of celebrities suffering from mental illness, or more specifically, from bipolar disorder (and there are many). I will only reference a young man with bipolar disorder – Matthew Warren – who rose to ultimate celebrity through his untimely death. At the risk of over-elucidating the need for public awareness and acceptance of those suffering from mental illness, I cite Matt because it seems that within the Church, there are blocks of brethren that persist in wrongheaded notions about mental illness and, beyond that, how to treat their brothers and sisters when tragedy strikes. To quote Frank Viola (Christian Post guest contributor) in his blog likewise referencing the Matt Warren tragedy, Christians tend to fall in one of three camps where mental illness is concerned:

    “1. Mental illness is demonic in origin. So the antidote is to cast out the demons that are causing it.
    2. Mental illness is psychobabble. There’s no such thing as a “mental disorder.” All so-called mental illnesses are just sinful behaviors. So the antidote is for person to repent and get right with God.
    3. Mental illness is a physiological disorder. The brain is a physical organ just like the heart, the thyroid, the joints, etc. Thus if someone has panic attacks or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or chronic depression or ADHD, they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, not dissimilar to a hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure or arthritis.”

    My blogs are traditionally long, so I’m going to respond to these philosophies in as little time as possible. Mostly, because I’m trying to remain civil.

    1. To say mental illness is demonic in origin shows a patent disregard for Scripture and a misunderstanding of Christ’s mission on earth. Matt Warren had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Word is clear that one cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24) – a concurrent occupation by both the Holy Spirit and a demon would be impossible. Further, Christ’s mission was not to interfere with the aggregate of human knowledge about the world and to further confuse us in our path to the Father, but to redeem those lost to sin. It would have made no sense for Jesus to actively collude with a primitive misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness by calling it “demon possession,” instead. In Luke 9:1-2, we’re told that Jesus gave the disciples “power and authority to drive out all demons AND to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God AND to heal the sick” (emphasis added). The Bible distinguishes these activities, separating demons FROM illness and disease.

    2. To say mental illness is psychobabble – that “mental illness” is just the consequence of sin – is ridiculous. If you sin by cheating the government on tax day, you will feel sadness or guilt. These emotions are proof of a quickened conscience, evidence of the Holy Spirit’s conviction. These emotions actually support the premise that the sufferer has a proximity to God sufficient to elicit them (contrasted with the “seared conscience” referenced in 1 Timothy 4:2 of the one who is unaware or apathetic toward his sin). Even Christ himself experienced sadness – and is described as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3) So if sadness = sin, then was the entirety of the New Testament wrong about Christ’s freedom from sin? Also, what a cruel Savior we would serve if He brought “mental illness” on everyone who sinned! What of the criminals who’ve done awful things but maintained their sanity? Where is their mental illness? And what of the separate classes of mental illness? The cognitive disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the developmental disabilities, such as autism and ADHD, are included among these. Does it make sense to conclude that these patients are all in sin when (a) their illness would prevent them from even UNDERSTANDING they were in sin? And/or (b) their illnesses (in the case of developmental disabilities) were present from birth? How do you explain the “sin” for the child born with autism? How much sin was my Noah in when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 5? And if you’re trying to pass those developmental disorders off on the parents’ sin, that’s not going to fly.

    “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:2-3)

    3. Mental illness is an actual physiological disorder. And the weight of medical, biological, and neuro-scientific evidence agrees with me. If it wasn’t, then the (a) medication used to treat it wouldn’t work, and (b) the MRI’s, FMRI’s, SPECT’s, PET’s, EEG’s and MRS’s used to view structure, electrical impulses and connectivity within the brain would show nothing different for the neurotypical, than for the mentally ill. The last time I checked, demon possession and un-confessed sin weren’t reparable through modern medicine.

    It’s because mental illness is an actual, physiological disorder that I was utterly shocked by some Christians across the web, who posted comments after Matt Warren’s death such as: “Suicide happens soon after your [sic] stupid enough to read ‘The Purpose Driven Life;’” and “Poor Matthew denies God’s love with suicide.”

    “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11)

    Did the authors of comments like those above read that passage from James?

    I hope I haven’t come across too stridently. But my heart is so wounded for the Warren family, and I am so shocked by the pervasive ignorance and cruelty of some people in the Body that reigning in my tongue proved challenging. The bottom line is that those living with mental illness are struggling with challenges the rest of you – you 75%’ers, you neurotypicals – cannot possibly comprehend. We are told – commanded! – to love the “least of these,” to love our neighbors as ourselves. How much MORE SO ought this to be in the case of the Body of Christ? We who are separate from the world – in the world, but not of it? I urge those who are uneducated about the nature of mental illness to do their research. I urge you to pray for the mentally ill. I urge you to stop your hateful diatribes and lift up in prayer those whose lives are marred by a pain you do not know.

    And now, finally, I’ll sign off.

    I have to let out the dog.

    – Sarah

    • Jodi Stribling-Perron

      Sarah, I read your post, & it is great! I was hoping maybe you could help me. I’m 38 years old, & was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder about 10 years ago. Each episode I’ve had has been worse than the one before it. I grew up in a great family, & was raised in the Baptist church, accepted Jesus as my savior when I was 9, & have done my best to live by my Christian values.

      This Bipolar Disorder is tearing me apart. Over the years, I have come to doubt God. But during the summer, I suffered a complete loss of myself. I have always believed that what makes us who we are is our soul, not our brain. But I, the real me, was nowhere to be found last summer. I had no sense of who I was, nothing made sense, and my personality was gone. I have lost my faith. I don’t believe there is a soul anymore. If there is no soul, there is no heaven, which means there is either no God, or if he exists, he is a liar.
      I don’t want to feel this way. Everything I’ve ever believed in is in question. If our true self is our soul, our spiritual being, then how can our brains, hormones, & chemicals have any affect on our soul? How can the physical nullify the spirital? I’m scared & confused. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. Please help me if you can.

      Thank You!


  • Adrian. I suffer from depression on a variety of levels for a variety of reasons. At the moment because of study, other commitments and energy levels, I don’t have the time to actually write a post around this question. But, i did post something in April which I believe does fit this criteria and can be found here http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/depression-and-the-fruit-of-the-spirit-2/

  • Hi Adrian. Thanks for hosting this conversation. I noticed it a day or two ago through Elizabeth Scalia on Twitter. I blog at a group blog (CatholicMoralTheology.com) and have posted a response to your question there. I have family members who suffer from mental illness, particular a brother who lives with schizoaffective disorder. I also teach in NAMI’s Family to Family program. These issues are near and dear to me. Here is the link to my post: http://catholicmoraltheology.com/st-augustine-catholics-and-mental-illness/

  • joannemcportland

    Here’s my contribution to the conversation. Thank you for convoking!


  • My personal favorite site regarding mental illness is http://www.madinamerica.com In my observation and experience the o-called mental health system in America is mostly hostile to religion and religious experience, insisting on a materialist approach in which spirituality is considered a symptom, not a help, and medication, often permanently harmful, is considered necessary and helpful in every case when it clearly is not and has done serious damage to many. My advice to Christian families concerned with members who may appear “mentally ill” is to, at all costs, keep them from the clutches of for-profit treatment centers AND any government mental health “provider”, do NOT blindly accept the explanations of self-interested, rigidly systematic “experts” and * particularly* do not fall into the trap of *destroying* your relationship with your loved one and any hope of securing their *meaningful* cooperation in therapy or *lasting changes* by resorting to involuntary commitments and forced treatment with permanently harmful drugs that are oversold by greedy pharmaceutical corporations for many things they were never tested or shown to be effective in treating. The “research” they rely on is, pardon my language, crap. The latest edition of the Diagnostic nd Statistical Manual of the APA so broadens many definition that, just as one for instance, peop,e going through ordinary grieving

    • Ordinary grieving will be improperly labeled as suffering from a mood disorder and told they must now remain on antidepressants their entire lives.

    • Sarah

      I find this entire comment to be extremely paranoid. I suffer from a mental illness and psychiatric treatment saved my life and my marriage. You obviously have no idea what you are speaking of.

  • Thank you for bringing awareness to this important issue. 22 yrs ago I was diagnosed with PTSD. Prior to that, I was receiving biblical counsel from church leaders telling me that perfect love casts out fear, so I must not be loving enough. I was also told that depression was anger turned inward. Yes, I was angry. I was abused my entire childhood, but was it sinful to be angry about that? Their message also distorted God’s image as an angry God. Once I got help from a trained psychologist, my issues subsided. I blog about these issues in the category: “Mental Health and the Church” at SpiritualSoundingBoard.com

  • Y. A. Warren

    The first thing we need to do is stop classifying any disease that can be treated with medication as anything other than organic illness. There is horrible healthcare discrimination against the medical treatment of any illness that can be shuttled over to non-organic in nature. If medication treats it, it IS organic.

  • Ambaa

    I’ve written a post about Hinduism and Depression: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whitehindu/2013/05/hinduism-and-depression/

    I would say that my faith definitely guards me against suicide. There are some days when it’s the only thing protecting me.

  • Churl
  • Sarah

    I’ve been reading the various comments. There is still much prejudice in the church, in society and in our own families about mental illness. I am bipolar, and I have a sister who is bipolar as well. The mental illness in my family of course goes back to previous generations also. This is a medical illness that, I believe, is inheritable.

    I have family members who still don’t understand that this is real. They do not live with me, or they would. I have had a “friend” give me three different books on demon possession and oppression. Others, like my mother, are supportive and understanding. I have one friend from church who knows about my condition and completely accepts me as I am. However, I am afraid to speak to pastors or christian counselors about my condition.

    One of the comments below talks about how broad the DSM-IV is and how psychiatrists are all money-grubbing dope-pedalers (my paraphrase). This is why I am afraid to talk to church leadership or christian counselors. There is so much prejudice against psychiatry, and yet, psychiatry has saved my life. I have deep depressions that take me to the edge of suicide. If it weren’t for my psychiatrist finding the right medications (and yes, it is a process that can take time) for me, I would probably not be here right now.

    The correct medications have essentially saved my marriage. When I am manic, I rage against my husband, provoke fights, and verbally abuse him. In my mind, I am “in the right”, though later I always regret my behavior and realize that I was wrong in my thinking altogether. You just can’t imagine the tug-of-war in my brain that takes place. It is not something that can be controlled with the will. If it were, I would have conquered this long ago. You can’t hand a Bible to a person with a mental illness and say, “Get yourself together.”

    I am a Christian, and I love God with all my heart. And I see a doctor for my illness.

    In church as well as society at large, I believe there is also an element of fear in people about what a person with mental illness is “liable to do.” To erase this stigma, it might be helpful to release data showing the percentage of the mentally ill who do actually commit crimes. I think it is fear, more than anything else, that drives this stigma.

    • Thanks for sharing Sarah. The truth is that the vast vast majority of people with mental illnesses present no risk of criminal and violent behavior. There are so many different types of illness and types of presentation that many don’t understand that hence the prejudice. Am glad it sounds like you are doing well. Sadly many with bipolar disorder never get a diagnosisOr correct treatment (eg doctors sometimes don’t increase the dose enough to control symptoms)