How has faith shaped our view of mental illness?

How has faith shaped our view of mental illness? May 11, 2013

The folks here at Patheos asked me to host a broad conversation about mental illness which is inspired by the release of Amy Simpson’s book Troubled Minds. You can also read and reply to the second question which addresses suicide.

In this post I will share some quotes and excerpts from the first week’s question which was really two questions:

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

First, let me share some of my own perspective on this. I believe that Christianity has historically a mixed report card on this subject. Fundamentally our faith has always valued people as inherently of worth because all of them were made in the image of God. Thus, when practiced correctly our faith should lead to compassionate care for the weak. Jesus said “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-41). Therefore throughout church history there have been good examples of Christians who have been inspired to care for the vulnerable, including the mentally ill. Some of the impulse behind the good aspects of the Asylum movement was definitely the Christian faith. We can follow in the footsteps of the best of that sentiment today by being willing as a starter to be on the look-out for mental illness, and not be afraid to ask people about suicidal thoughts.

But there has also been another side. Like all people Christians have struggled to understand mental illness. It is striking that the most popular post to date on my site was entitled “Can a Christian get depressed?” Many Christians are aware how their own faith has helped them feel peace, as well as joy, and hope. When we see a person with mental illness we can be tempted to say something like “pull yourself out of it!” Of course in some milder cases there are things that we can do to counter our emotions. But the more depression gets a grip, the less able people are to lift their mood in any way. Encouragement and regular pastoral counseling does have a role, but the more severe a mental illness is the more it may need to be supplemented by medical help. Psychological and spiritual exercises are not sufficient on their own to treat much mental illness.

Because Christians recognize that peace, joy, and hope are fruits of the Holy Spirit’s activity in them, another response to mental illness has been to want to pray for the person. This can of course be helpful. But, it is important that Christians grasp that we should no more rely on prayer alone for treating mental illness than for say cancer treatment. Asking doctors for help does not indicate a lack of faith.

Finally, there has been a tendency to blame demon possession for all mental illness in some circles. This is unfortunate, and does not in any case reflect the Scriptures where demonization can cause a raft of different physical symptoms, including deafness and muteness. Nobody today believes that all deafness and muteness is caused by a demon. So we should not make the same mistake about mental illness. There is so much more I could say about this subject, but it is time to turn to the posts of others.

It is not too late for you to add your contribution, please link to it in the comment section here, and link back to this post in your article to help us track your replies. The second question will be posted on Monday.

Patheos Contributions

  • Joanne Portland of the Catholic channel wrote of her own experience, “That morning in April, I’d casually mentioned in a Facebook message to my best Episcopal friend that I didn’t want to be alive. Friend that she is, she saw right through the casual and recognized that this was more than just my usual blue mood. She called our Episcopal rector, who, after asking me where God was in all of this and hearing me respond “Nowhere,” bundled me off to the emergency room of the local hospital where he was a board member. He and my friend were upbeat and supportive, until they heard me tell the intake nurse that I did indeed have a plan for hurting myself. That shocked them, almost as much as it shocked me to hear it coming out of my mouth; I was so deep in the abyss of depressive apathy that I couldn’t manage to reassure them with a reminder of how terrible I am at following through on plans, even on the best day.”
  • What She Read writes, “So what can we do this week? If you’re like me, you usually steer clear because you’re afraid of becoming entangled. Mental illness is messy. Who needs a meal? Who needs to go out for coffee? Whose child needs a ride to soccer, or baseball, or ballet? Who looks lonely? Could there be more to their story? Should we ditch that “I just don’t connect with her” excuse?”
  • French Revolution quotes another author’s personal experience, “As we experience our rapid descents, how many of us reach out for anything we can grab to break our fall? To escape the pain. To find a way to numb out. We don’t believe God will actually rescue. So we sidestep. We look for a shortcut. Any way out. Because it hurts too much, and it has gone on for far too long. We are weary. Frankly, we are angry that it has gotten this hard. We’ve complained so long, even we are sick of hearing ourselves, never mind the effect it’s having on those around us.”
  • Muslimah next door wrote “Recently, at the first meeting of a support group for Muslim families with special needs organized by SMILE for Charity in New Jersey, parents of children with autism, Down Syndrome and other special needs broke down in tears as they shared stories: Stories where Muslims asked them what sin they must’ve have committed to be punished by Allah with a special needs child.”
  • Alt Muslim described the same meeting, “As I looked around the room I felt a wide range of raw emotions emanating from the group. Emotions usually kept hidden, but on this occasion, that was not necessary.I saw hope. Despair. Worry. Agitation. Empathy. Concern. Happiness. But most importantly, I saw love.”
  • God and the Machine wrote, “When your child has cancer, the course of action is self-evident. Tests, doctors, treatment, nurturing, healing, fighting. When your child has a sick mind, it’s much harder for a family to come to grips with how–and in many cases if–to proceed. And, as with cancer, the treatment might not succeed. Mental illness is both biological and psychological. Both aspects need to be treated, and you need to deal with the brain chemistry before you can hope to work on the psychological elements. Finding the right combination of meds isn’t an exact science. It’s just trial and error, usually over a grueling period of time that can grind down the patient.”
  • Frank Viola said, “In answer to the question, as a person who believes the Bible, humans are tripartite. We are spirit, soul, and body. The soul makes up mind, will, and emotion. All of these parts are connected.In addition, the brain is an organ just like the thyroid, the heart, and any other organ that can become imbalanced. I also believe in the invisible realm, where God, angels, and demons exist and operate on earth.” Frank also pointed to his post 3 Christian Responses to Mental Illness

More contributions from around the web:

  • Joe Padilla of the Grace Alliance notes that when dealing with mentally ill individuals sometimes “pastoral staff members grow frustrated when they don’t understand why their ministry methods are not working. In response, they unknowingly go into “religious default” mode, which places the blame on the individual.”
  • Stephen Grcevich, MD of Key Ministry writes “the church has made MUCH more progress in recognizing the signs of mental illness in adults and providing appropriate support than it has for children or teens. Mental illness in kids often manifests with anger, moodiness, irritability, aggression, defiance, and difficulties with self-regulation of emotion and behavior. It’s much more common in my experience for the signs of mental illness to be dismissed as a parenting problem as opposed to a spiritual problem.
  • David Murray takes a look at how the Puritans were much more enlightened on mental illness than some of us today, and quoted Richard Baxter describing people with depression: “Their misery is so much that they cannot but think of it. You may almost as well persuade a man not to shake in an fever, or not to feel when he is pained, as persuade them to cast away their self-troubling thoughts, or not to think all the enormous, confounding thoughts as they do, they cannot get them out of their heads night or day.”
  • Murray also posted on Baxter’s view of treatment “those with depression of a spiritual nature, require spiritual counsel. Those whose depression is a result of somatic illness need medical care to correct that cause. People who suffer from endogenous depression may require both spiritual and medical treatment, depending on their case.”
  • John O Dozier Jr linked to a sermon by Tim Keller on the complexity of the human spirit.
  • Deborah Bauers explained, “When the brain is sick, a counselor who has been trained to see the whole person will seek appropriate medical intervention. If the heart is sick he/she will recognize the need for emotional and spiritual healing. If the client’s psychological constructs suggest faulty thinking, unhealthy coping mechanism or an addiction, a wise Christian counselor will address the issues by implementing techniques and strategies that can stand up to Biblical scrutiny. If there is a spiritual problem, he will draw upon God’s wisdom and discernment to help him uncover its root and then apply God’s grace to transform it.”
  • Amy Simpson wrote, “In most cases, people in the evangelical church have stayed fairly quiet about mental illness. We have reflected the silence of the culture around us, which historically hasn’t had many beneficial things to say on a topic that seemed so unpleasant and so hopeless. At times we have reflected another aspect of our culture’s relationship to mental illness: speaking about it in ways that ridicule, romanticize, or reinforce frightening stereotypes about people with mental illness.”
  • Sarah Perry spoke about Winston Churchill’s Black dog of depression, that may have been Bipolar Disorder.
  • Dana Dillon of Catholic Moral Theology quoted Augustine who wrote, “Crazy people say and do many incongruous things, things for the most part alien to their intentions and their characters, certainly contrary to their good intentions and characters; and when we think about their words and actions, or see them with our eyes, we can scarcely — or possibly we cannot at all — restrain our tears, if we consider their situation as it deserves to be considered.”

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