Mental Illness and Christian Faith

March 4th, 2014

All-Too-Familiar Stories of Violence

It’s not every week that a state senator from Bath, Virginia, gets into the national spotlight with an interview on the CBS News program 60 Minutes. According to an article by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the interview was taped in December, following tragic events that took place on November 19, 2013. On that day, Senator Creigh Deeds’ son, Gus, attacked his father with a knife, not killing him but leaving scars on his forehead and left cheek. After the attack, Gus killed himself with a hunting rifle.

This story has an unfortunate twist. Just a day earlier, Senator Deeds had taken his son to a mental health facility under an emergency custody order because he was afraid Gus would harm himself. The facility said they were unable to accommodate Gus because there were not enough beds. The custody order ran out, and Gus was released. Senator Deeds has now successfully pushed for a new law extending the amount of time mentally ill individuals can be held in emergency custody, along with other reforms of the mental health system in Virginia.

Unfortunately, this tragic story is just one of many recent examples of violence that have been in the news lately. On January 25, three people were killed at a mall in Columbia, Maryland, including the shooter. In November, a homeless man in Ocean City, Maryland, allegedly set himself on fire and then ran into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He set fire to the office and rectory, killing himself and the rector. In each of the cases, and in many others like them that have occurred within the past year, one common denominator was mental illness.

Mental Health in the United States

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), serious mental health disorders that are often the cause of such terrible events like the ones cited above are relatively uncommon. Their research shows that 4.1 percent of all adults in the United States have been diagnosed with what they call a serious mental illness (SMI). This is defined as a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder either currently or within the past year that causes significant impairment in major life activities. There may, of course, be many others suffering from illnesses that have not been reported.

The NIMH also reports that less serious mental disorders in general are fairly common. In the United States, 25 percent of adults, one in four, are diagnosable with a mental disorder in any given year, including anything from anxiety to depression to bipolar disorder. Of those 25 percent of Americans with a diagnosable mental disorder, about 41 percent receive any kind of care or services for the disorder, according to the same NIMH study. That means 59 percent, or more than half, do not.

There are many factors that might explain why people with a mental illness do not seek help. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia, people often do not seek treatment because “they don’t think treatment will help. . . . They don’t recognize the symptoms . . . [or] they can’t afford it.” They also cite the social stigma attached to mental illness as a reason why people might not seek help.

The Church and Mental Illness

How has the Christian church approached mental health throughout the centuries? In Scripture, the focus is on supernatural causes of any number of struggles humans face, either as God’s judgment or as the actions of demons. There is no acknowledgement of any natural causes that might lead to a mental illness.

The early church also focused on supernatural reasons for why people struggle with their mental health. The book Modern Psychopathologies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal traces the understanding of mental illness throughout the history of the church. The authors explain that in the early church, “all suffering, disability and trials can in the end be traced back to sin, and therefore an understanding of these struggles in life begins with an awareness of the sinfulness of the human condition.” Pastoral care, then, primarily took the form of a penitential rite, whereby an individual would seek to be reconciled to God and thus undermine the primary cause of their struggles.

The book points out that it wasn’t until the Puritans came along in the 16th century that a distinction began to be made between spiritual and natural causes of disorders, especially depression. The rise of the modern field of psychology in the 19th century has led to a new understanding of how mental illnesses begin, though the book’s authors caution against the church emphasizing the natural factors contributing to mental health to the neglect of the spiritual side of human nature.

The church has often struggled to maintain that balance between recognizing the natural causes of mental illness while also tending to the spiritual needs of those who struggle. It is an issue that, unfortunately, was brought into sharp focus last April, when one of the most well-known pastors in America, Rick Warren, lost his son Matthew to suicide. Warren is best known as the author of the book The Purpose Driven Life.

An article in The Washington Post, written on April 10, 2013, described how the death of Warren’s son caused some Christian leaders to question how the church “might sometimes stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness.” The leaders quoted expressed a desire to bring those struggles out of the shadows and discussed reasons why those struggles might have been driven into the darkness in the first place. Their responses demonstrate how some Christians continue to approach mental health issues in the same way the early church did as described in the Modern Psychopathologies book.

“As Christians, we believe this side of heaven [that] all disease, sickness and pain is rooted in a world broken by sin,” Rebekah Lyons, an evangelical blogger, said in the Washington Post article. Lyons believes that this understanding might sometimes lead people to downplay or minimize any natural causes of mental health issues, which she says leads to an unhelpful oversimplification of the issues. The article also points out that some people might be reluctant to seek medical help for mental health problems, particularly if they feel that issues like anxiety and depression are primarily spiritual issues. “The fervent belief among evangelicals in the power of prayer and dependence on God and Jesus for healing might stifle congregants from talking about mental illness or seeking help for themselves or family members,” the article states.

Shining Light, Bringing Hope

How can churches better minister to those struggling with mental health issues?

Awareness is the first step. Opening dialogue within a congregation about the prevalence of mental disorders in society and what might cause them can help bring people and their struggles out of the shadows. Properly understanding the causes of mental illness can help inspire those suffering with it to seek help.

Prayer is the next step. Congregations ought to be in prayer for those suffering with mental illness and those around them in their families and communities. Prayer can also aid the congregation in discerning what ministries might be helpful or what actions might need to be taken in order to respond to the needs of those struggling with mental health issues. Facing these issues openly and honestly, with Christ-like compassion, can bring light, hope, and healing to an issue that affects so many in our congregations and communities.

When the Unthinkable Happens

Building a culture of openness and compassion in the church will go a long way in properly ministering to those suffering with many mental illnesses. Unfortunately, there will likely continue to be stories of tragedy and violence related to these complex issues. The church is in a unique position to minister to the community when the unthinkable happens.

First, the church can be a welcoming presence. Simply being open and available for people to come and rest in the midst of a chaotic time can be a profound comfort.

Next, providing opportunities for prayer and worship with others is something only the church can do. Liturgy and ritual offer a sense of normalcy in the midst of a completely abnormal situation. Prayers like the Lord’s Prayer offer words in the midst of a situation for which there are no words.

Finally, being actively involved in promoting reconciliation where needed can be a precious gift of healing to a community. This may take many forms. In October 2006, members of an Amish community that suffered the tragic murder of five young girls in a schoolhouse gave a striking testimony to the world by attending the funeral of their killer. There were 75 people on hand, and about half of them were Amish. How can our congregations be witnesses for forgiveness and love?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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