October 20, 2014

The Christian and Mental Illness I: Beginning Questions

Several times a week, I have to read folders containing psychological evaluations of prospective students. They are often quite daunting and detailed. The stories range from ordinary to nightmarish and disturbing. I must read and review the psychiatric evaluations and counseling histories of all students who are seeking admission to our school. After reading, I make a recommendation as to their appropriateness for us. In some cases, I do an additional interview, and make an evaluation based on the interview and the information.

I’ve ministered with young people and adults long enough to have seen a lot of mental illness–from my father’s depression to the suicides of co-workers and young people to the many episodes of emotional and mental illness I have encountered in church and community. I’ve visited hospitals for the mentally ill, counseled families and individuals dealing with the mental illness of a family member and helped individuals decide to seek help for everything from depression to delusions of being God.

For many years, the majority of my work week was counseling individuals at our school. In these hours of counseling, I saw all kinds of human emotional brokenness, much of it related to what we commonly call mental or emotional illness. I continue to deal with people who have sought psychiatric and psychological help, and many of our students are on psychiatric medications.

As a Christian, a minister and a servant, I am compelled to look at the subject of mental illness and make some important decisions. While the subject is tossed around without much seriousness, it is a matter of immense human pain and suffering. It is a dimension of life that Christians cannot pretend is not present and all around them on any Sunday or Monday.

Is there such a thing as mental illness? Many Christians are suspicious of the psychological worldview that diagnoses human behavior in terms of “illness” and “disorders.” Can Christians have anything to do with a way of looking at human beings that is rooted in an atheistic worldview? Is the use of medication ethical and permissable for Christians? Can we accept descriptions and diagnostic terminology rooted in psychology rather than scripture?

Is mental illness a manifestation of spiritual forces (demons) or the result of personal sin? Many Christians have embraced models of dealing with human behavior that respond to what we call mental illness with scripture-based behavior modification, scripture memory, repentance and spiritual warfare, even exorcism. Is it ethical to seek to “cure” mental illness?

Is there mental illness in the Bible? Did Jesus encounter the mentally ill? Where in the Bible can we see mental illness? Were Saul, Jeremiah and Ezekiel mentally ill? How would Jesus or Paul respond to a mentally/emotionally ill person?

What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill? How should they be viewed and included in the Christian community? Should the mentally ill be allowed to be part of the ministries of the church? What about their experience of God? Is it valid, or a manifestation of their mental illness?

What does the Gospel say to the mentally ill? What does it say to all human beings about the mentally ill? What does their presence among us tell us about ourselves? How is mental illness related to “true humanity?”

I’ll address these questions in future posts.

Comments

  1. Sorry if I’m jumping the gun on this…. (Well, I guess if I were really sorry I wouldn’t do it.)

    It’s probable that most Christians who want to discount actual illness as a root of mental instability seek to do so only because of a desire to retain the responsibility of the individual for his plight, and/or the ability to “fix” the problem with the Gospel.

    Interestingly, they overlook more “normal” physical ailments as being a product of man’s sin (responsibility), even though for the most part such things occur involuntarily (i.e. birth defects, most sicknesses, accidental injuries, etc.). Why shouldn’t we see mental illness as a result of the Fall, therefore under the category of “Man Screwed This Up, Too”?

    The problem is that the Gospel doesn’t guarantee relief from these ailments (at least not in a strictly temporal-miraculous sense). But the Gospel does give us hope that 1) illness, physical or mental, is not something God is delighted with, and 2) God IS working in the world (even now, through medical practices) to set these things right, which he will eventually do once for all.

  2. iMonk,

    I too was one of those people who thought mental illness was somewhat less real than physical illness. Though I didn’t think demons were behind it in every case, it was still something dishonorable. It was something due to bad character or weakness.

    The start of my change in attitude came first with watch “A Beautiful Mind.” Then not long after my Mother in Law was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Now she sees things and people that aren’t there and splits her husband into different people.

    Can I say this gentle, beautiful Christain woman is demon possessed? Can I say she is weak of character? Not likely. She has shown more character throughout life in her little finger than I have in my whole body.

    So it is something else. Part of our trying to live humanly in the midst of the Fall. And until the resurrection, the Fall seems to win; the Power of Death chips at us slowly or all at once. We cling with trembling hands to the promise of what Christ has and will wrought in this world.

    And hope we are not kidding ourselves. And hope despite our most certain belief, in the middle of the night, that we ARE kidding ourselves.

    I look forward to your thoughts in this area. Courageous topic to take on. God’s Grace.

  3. Looking forward to this series. My wife is a counselor in a public school.

  4. Lilymyrrh says:

    Was really glad to find this post…was disappointed that there are not more comments. I see this is from 2 years ago…do you have anything more updated. I am coming to terms with my own mental illness (Type II Bipolar w/Severe Anxiety Disorder). I’ve tried to compensate for this illness my whole life. My parents/ family are not supportive and the charismatic church treats it as only a spiritual issue…I went this route for many years, but it only heightened my problems. I am only now breaking free and becoming empowered by the medical information. Understanding that this is an issue of the brain and not of poor character or a personal weakness or even a failure on my part to have enough faith for supernatural healing/deliverance. Dealing with the illness itself is hard enough without all the peripheral stuff…although, I don’t think I can completely eliminate all that, but I am going to begin educating those in my life regardless of their response and will have boundaries for myself, so that I can eliminate some of the mistreatment in my life due to my mental illness.

  5. I have dealt with OCD my whole life. (BC & AC)And I have sought counsel from those sympathetic to the Mental Illness paradigm and those hostel to it.

    I can only say that it’s interesting that one such “anti” mental illness person had to put on his glasses to read the Bible verses. The irony was lost on him but not on me, at the time, a scared and confused 17-year-old observer. (I guess the lens strength was not strong enough for him to see his own hypocrisy!) After all, according to his opinion, should I not see his biological ailment as a form of imperfect blindness brought about by some secret sin, lack of faith, or demonic interference?

    Here is another point to ponder. If the brain is not physiological chemistry, why do so many people seek to use drugs and alcohol to alter it? And is the alcohol consumed not called spirits? But the people of antiquity still called it’s influence drunkenness, not demon position. (Lot got drunk, not possessed.)

    For me it is obvious that mental illness is real. I can also say with complete confidence that, though not in scripture, one should wash their hands after a BM due to the reality of germs. (Also not mentioned in scripture.)

    But please spray- for the smell may be demonic

  6. Thank you for just TALKING about mental illness, a topic which has far too little communication about it in the church today. As a ministry for those with chronic illness, we don’t minister “directly” to those with mental illness because we just aren’t qualified or equipped, but many people who have chronic physical illnesses also deal with mental illness and/or depression on top of their other illness. It’s a constant challenge to find good resources to refer them too. Thanks for taking up the challenge!

    Lisa Copen
    Director, Rest Ministries
    Joyfully Serving the Chronically Ill

    PS: You may be interested to know we also sponsor National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week annually in September (www.invisibleillness.com) and we truly want more involvement of individuals and organizations that deal with mentail illness.

  7. Michael,
    I think I might appreciate good questions as much as I appreciate good answers (well maybe not–it’s just that good answers are pretty hard to come by, so in lieu of that, I’ll take the good questions). In any case, your questions are helpful to me.

    I hate how people with mental illnesses are often devalued, disregarded, patronized and written off by others. I know what that feels like from being different from the “norm” in other ways. As a result, it grieves me when I see it happen to another person, for whatever reason. Somehow, whenever you’ve written about mental illness and depression, I see the opposite happening–it’s like by addressing the topic in such a genuine way you are affirming the value and connection-worthiness of people with this particular set of struggles.

    Lillymyrh, Your courage gives me encouragement and hope, even while I feel a heaviness for the uphill battle you face with people’s misunderstandings and mistreatment.
    Scott, Thanks for making me smile as I continue to think and grapple with this heavy topic.
    Lisa, I struggle with long term burnout, which doesn’t neatly fit into any category. I found your website(s) and resources to be relevant.

  8. I am not speaking here in judgment of others but am sharing what has helped, and continues to help me become an increasingly healthy, functional and contributing member of my family and community, as well as an increasingly obedient servant of God.

    The following are words I have written to myself in a book I keep handy for moments of temptation:

    * Craziness (mental & emotional illness, insanity…) is a temptation to believe that I am not in control of my feelings, thoughts and actions. BUT ~ self control is a fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)

    * if craziness is an inherent physiological condition, then drugs and therapy are the solution and my hope is confined to the medical expertise & pharmaceuticals available and affordable to me. BUT ~ if craziness is a sin, then confession and repentance are the solution, and my hope; based on the efficacy of the blood of Jesus, is infinite! (Hebrews 4:16) (James 4:6)

    * a tendency to sin is present in all mankind, but we tend toward different forms of sin with the same roots. Extreme emotional dysphoria, and self-centered thoughts and behaviors are my tendency. Overcoming it is merely a choice. I am free to make that choice because God has given me the power. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

    * Satan wants me to believe that I am crazy. This would withdraw my help from those who need my support and squelch the fruitfulness of my relationship with Christ that would otherwise overflow in my sharing the light of the gospel with those in my path. God wants to me walk in faith that I have a sound mind, and that He has given me the power to succeed at my responsibilities. (Habakkuk 3:19 Amp)(Ephesians 6:12)

    The scriptures, by the way, are not an attempt at scriptural “proof.” They merely serve as an encouragement to me — the light of truth when I am plunging into darkness.

    I use the Amplified Bible, in which the Habakkuk scripture, gives me great hope:

    The Lord God is my Strength, my personal bravery, and my invincible army; He makes my feet like hinds’ feet and will make me to walk [not to stand still in terror, but to walk] and make [spiritual] progress upon my high places [of trouble, suffering, or responsibility]!

    In conclusion, for years I pursued mental and emotional healing through the mental health profession. I can offer as a result a string of diagnoses from the DSM. I don’t “go there” anymore.

    I read a book recently called “It’s Not My Fault” by Cloud & Townsend. It articulates well the means to the happy and hopeful life I am living.

  9. Thank you for your research and courage to find out information on mental illness and Christianity. I once went to a church where they forbid me to take my anti-depressant medication. They saw it as weak and a character flaw. I am glad I am no longer at that church. I attending a church right now that is somewhat behind in its knowledge of psychiatric illness. I say that because recently I was at a bible study where I mentioned my problems with mental illness and how it keeps me from serving the way I want to. The leader of the bible study said that as we serve and forget about our own issues we get healing. I know that is true but we should also be aware of our limitations and get help for any illness we may have. Why did God create doctors and researchers to help us get better on the medicines they made. I believe it is a sin if you know a medication can help you and you don’t take it. It is a sin if you know you can get help and you don’t. I have major depression but thankfully with medication and psychotherapy I am in remission. Currently there is not a cure to depression but there are treatments that can help one have a somewhat decent life. I am still cautious to tell people in the church about my illness. I do believe it was God who alerted me to the psysiological aspects of my health problems and problems with my mind. God was bringing people into my life who were Christians with mental illness. I am thankful and grateful to God for this. I have come a long way and we all have a long way to go in understanding and giving compassion to the mentally ill.

  10. KYD4Christ says:

    Thank you so much for raising these questions and generating discussion about mental illness! I believe we need more and more of these discussions to come to a better understanding of mental illnesses and mood disorders and stomp out the stigma attached to them, espeically among Christians.

    The world and the cares of it can bog us down at times and make anyone a little “depressed.” Clincal Depression and other mood disorders, however, are actual illnesses that require more than simply choosing to have a positive attitude. At the same time, my faith and optimism definitly play a role in overcoming the symptoms!

    I am so thankful that God gives humans the understanding and technology to treat these illnesses, just as they treat Diabetes or heart problems. Would you tell someone with those diseases to just trust God more and just “think low blood sugar thoughts” and your Diabetes will be healed?! I hope it helps to put it in its proper perspective.

    I can empathize directly with Lilymyrrh. (If you see this, Lilymyrrh, I found a wonderful forum/support group called MDJunction.com and it has every health problem you could think of. I joined the Bipolar II and Generalized Anxiety Disorder groups and have received lots of encrouagement and support from people who truly understand what it’s like to suffer from the same illnesses.) At times my illness is hard to bear, but as a Christian I keep my faith and trust in God and he always gets me through it! With proper treatment (medication and counseling), a supportive family, prayers and study, and research I have been pretty stable for almost 4 years now! I know that God will never give me more than I can bear, and no matter what, I will not lose heart! II Corinthians 4.

    So I would agree that trusting God has helped me significantly with overcoming the illness, but part of trusting him is trusting him working through the doctors and medicine to treat the illness. The medicine keeps me functional so that I can be ABLE to think positively and productively serve God. And I think the fact that I am doing so well actually brings glory to God by showing how he works in us, through our infirmaries and weaknesses whatever they may be, and how he will never leave us. We serve an awesome God, a Great Physician! God bless!

  11. I love God and I too have been dealing with alot of stuff. My mom is bi polar. I dont think I am, but I do have depression and anxiety. It affects my everyday lifr.I try to forget about it. Im scared if I confront it I may go crazy, but I cant hide it anymore. I feel so alone. No one around me even knws what I go through. I tell my husband sometimes and he just says be happy, but its not that easy. It took alot of strength and urgency for me to even tell him, and thats all he could say?? I dont know what to do. Im scared to take meds. I really need the Lord to help me. I had so many people tell me that I just needed to pray more. Maybe its true. I dont know, but im not better. im alot worse. Im going to have to seek help and I do feel better that other Christians support me and others who feel like this is the step that we must take to get better. God Bless You. thankyou

  12. Thank you for the encouragement offered by Alatheia on 8-19-08. I’m “afraid” my son (age 44) might have bipolar and I don’t understand it, but I certainly do believe that Jesus can cure anything and I just want to understand and help my son deal with what he has to deal with until that day when Jesus heals him completely!

    Thank you for sharing and God bless you greatly!

    Dinah

  13. Matthew says:

    To Dinah and anyone else reading this who is close to a mentally ill person, all I can say is please don’t treat a mental illness as some sort of spiritual weakness, demonic possession, or anything other than what it is. It is a real illness that presents real problems and causes real people to suffer in the worst ways imaginable . . . and that’s with medication and doctors. And even with the best of both and the strongest faith in the world, it’s very possible that a cure might never come. I’m not saying doubt it’s possible, but be preapred.

    Prayer can help, but you cannot pray this away. Think whatever you want in your own head. That’s fine. Be as ignorant of science and delusional as you please. Believe all the stories about boogiemen you want, but when it comes to someone with a mental illness, please do not heap that mess onto an already suffering person. The only thing you’re doing is digging an even deeper hole that he’s eventually going to have to crawl out of. And that’s if he’s lucky. If he’s not then he might just stay there for the rest of his life or he might decide to end it all on his own.

    I’m a Christian too and I’ve been through this and plenty of other “programs” the church promised would save me, but only proved to be a lot more hurtful than they’d ever be helpful. I have bipolar disorder. I’ve prayed and fasted and prayed and read the Bible and prayed and, guess what? Still bipolar. Feel free to pray for a mentally ill person all you want. They need it. Feel free to believe it’s some sort of unresolved sin, but keep it to yourself. All this nonsense does is damage an already weak and beaten down person. Trust me. We feel bad and guilty enough about this without any help from Demon Busters.

    I wish there was some way to speak directly to Nicole above. This is someone who needs help and needs to be assured that what is happening to her is not her fault. The husband’s response probably couldn’t be more useless and hurtful. That’s another thing. If your partner isn’t willing to understand what is happening to you then that’s his problem. Not yours. I’ve learned that the hard way too. I’m lucky enough to have a supportive family and a very understanding partner, but it’s horrible to read even one comment like Nicole’s. I truly hope someone has stepped in to help her.

  14. I have bipolar, ptsd, and borderline personality disorder. I have good days and bad days justlike everyone else in the world. I too believe that through God all things are possible.

    But what I don’t think people and christians realize is that our struggle is a thousand times harder than yours. It takes everything within us to make it through some days, but it is only by the grace of God that I do make it through those rough time. I don’t use my mental illness for an exuse and neither do I think I don’t have a choice, but what is most difficult is how hard the struggle is.

    Imagine the worst day of your life when all your emotions were out of control. Times that by a thousand and tell me that you can do better than me. Tell me that you don’t get knocked down and feel like you have to begin again. Tell me that you have joy unspeakable and full of glory. Tell me that it is not a struggle that takes everything within you to just hold on to the hem of Jesus’s garment.

    What makes it harder is when you feel alone, that people don’t understand how hard it is. When all you hear is just do this and it will all be better. Paul said that he had a thorn in his flesh and God didn’t remove that thorn, but he had to press through it. It wasn’t easy, but it can be accomplished. That is my hope every day and I’m telling you it is only by his Word and Spirit that I make it through some days.