The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church

Before I get accused of hating the church in any form, and I know that’s the first reaction of some, a little background on me. I met my husband in church. I didn’t grow up in church, really, but I’ve been a Christian for most of my life now. When I met my husband he was a children’s pastor, and about a year later I began volunteering to help out in elementary services. He became a full-time minister  before we were married and has remained in full-time ministry ever since. The entirety of our 13-year marriage has been spent in devotion to God, His people, and the local church in the form of full-time ministry. I also hold two degrees – one in counseling, and the other in general ministries, both earned at a Christian university. I literally went to college to learn how to serve the church. I hate no one. I love the church. I love people. My passion for both have led me to learn all that I can so that I may help all that I can. The post you’re about to read is more concern than criticism, for the people who make up God’s church, for the people who have not yet walked through the doors, and for the people who may never come inside.

We have to do better.

Mental illness is a scary term. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, from anxiety to psychosis, so simply labeling someone mentally ill can conjure up a number of images and assumptions – most of them wrong. Whatever the diagnosis, whatever the terminology, the fact remains that mentally ill people are as deserving of the love of Jesus Christ as anyone else. I don’t think anyone could argue with me there, right?

Then why do we treat those who struggle as though they have chosen to suffer in place of salvation?

I will say this now, and likely hundreds more times for the rest of my life – mental illness is not a choice, mental illness is not a lack of faith, mental illness is not a sign of weakness.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself in my fervor, let me back up.

To understand how the church is getting it wrong, the church has to understand what it’s dealing with. Mental illness is just that – an illness. Sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance, sometimes it’s a miswiring or misfiring of the brain, but whatever the cause there is an organic, physical disorder that exists within the mind of the sufferer. It can’t always be seen the way a limp or wheelchair can, but it remains a struggle nonetheless. For some reason, the invisible battles that are waged are often viewed in the church as more spiritual than physical. Yes, we war not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and there are often very real spiritual battles and oppressions that occur, but this has never been intended as a dismissal of all things unseen. One of my favorite professors in college told the story once of how he, while pastoring a church, was approached in loud desperation. A group of church members were carrying a woman and laid her at his feet, pleading with him to cast the demons out of her as she was surely possessed. The woman was writhing, moaning, foaming at the mouth… and had a seizure disorder. She was experiencing a medical emergency, but the church, in their ignorance of the psychological and insistence upon the spiritual, was of no help.

A woman I knew from church was experiencing a mental health crisis. She was deeply depressed, overwhelmingly anxious, and her social media posts made it obvious she was struggling. Those who attended church with her reached out, with the best of intentions I’m sure, but instead of offering her help or hope, they only hurt and hardened her. Rather than approach her with empathy, those on the outside who enjoyed the good fortune of stable mental health began with the assumption that her struggles were chosen, were spiritual, were the result of a lack of faith rather than a lack of serotonin. None of these were true. She was battling mental illness, a chemical imbalance much in the same vein as type 1 diabetes. Yet the diabetic is not told their insulin is a sin, is not frowned upon for turning down cake at a birthday party. This woman who was struggling, who already felt weak and overwhelmed, was told by people who did not understand her illness how she should handle it. “Pray more!” “You should try fasting!” “Have you asked God to show you where in your life you’re weak?” “Do you have any sins or open doors in your life that would bring this on?” “Read your Bible every day!” “You should find some good verses to tape to your mirror that will uplift your spirit.” “Really go after God!” “Turn up that worship, girl, and praise your way out of this!” None of these helped, obviously, as she was facing a very real disorder that they were minimizing down to a personal faith issue or a simple bad mood. The woman, while absolutely in need of God, was not in need of clichés – she was in need of medication.

Here’s something else the church has to understand about mental illness – it gums up your brain. Someone who is mentally healthy does not and cannot think in the same way that a mentally ill person does. Just as you may breathe more freely than someone with asthma, you cannot expect a mentally ill person to think in the same “logical” sense that you do. To someone overwhelmed by invasive, pervasive thoughts, those thoughts make perfect sense. To someone paralyzed by fear or anxiety, every worry is justified. No person in the midst of a psychotic break, manic episode, or fugue state chose to act the way they do when affected. It is all too easy to view the dark posts of the woman wrestling with depression and think, “What does she have to be sad about? She’s so negative, why doesn’t she cheer up and ask God for some joy?” It’s all too comfortable to use your logic to negate an illogical mind, but it does nothing to heal or help them. We can pray for these brothers and sisters, and we absolutely should, but our listening ears will go a lot further than our “logical” advice.

Which brings me to another area where the church is failing the mentally ill: the lack of licensed professional counselors and the absolute overrun of well-intended laypeople. I know, I know, you’re mad at me for this one. You know of some fantastic ministries led by volunteers who offer “counseling” and see lives changed. The people are genuinely loving, wise, and want to help. But they are playing with fire. Biblical knowledge is not a substitute for mental health training. The best of intentions will never take the place of a license from the state board of examiners that says you know what you’re doing. I feel a mixture of fear and anger when I see these volunteer “counseling” ministries advertised or suggested – fear for the person who is placing their mental health in the hands of someone wildly unqualified to care for it, and anger at the rate at which the layperson offers their advice as counseling. It is not the same. Legally, it’s not even counseling. We allow Biblically-sound but psychologically-illiterate people to care for the most fragile of persons, and it’s a dangerous, dangerous game. Churches need licensed, professional counselors at the ready, and if no LPCs are available then they must be humble enough to pass on the number of one who is. Addiction, anxiety, and depression are some of the most common struggles that bring churchgoers to the altars, and every one of them is serious enough to need a professional’s guidance, not a church pillar’s good intentions. Financial advice, life wisdom, general encouragement, and testimony are all welcome and valuable services offered by church members around you, but when it comes to mental health issues, a professional is not only respectful, it is necessary. It does not matter what life experiences you’ve had, if you are not trained in mental health care then you have no business offering services in the field, and you are rolling the dice on doing more harm than good.

Now that I’ve lost a few friends after that paragraph, I’m sure to isolate a few more with this one: the church fails its mentally ill members by supporting the notion that mental illness is the result of a spiritual lack or physical sin. I once sat in on a very well-known conference, one that is held several times a year in churches all over the country. It has been around for years and comes with very high praise, and at the risk of pitchforks and lawsuits I won’t name it, but I still feel a fire in my belly when I hear it mentioned and consider every church that welcomes it willfully negligent. On the inside of the handout everyone receives, literally one of the first things anyone in attendance sees, is the image of a tree, with illnesses and maladies drawn into the leaves and the “causes” written into the branches and roots. You guessed it – mental illness was “caused” by a spiritual fault, by sin, according to this “ministry” that claimed to want healing for all. Very real, very quantifiable, very devastating diseases and disorders were reduced to the fault of the sufferer and assumed to remain because the mentally ill person chose to keep them.  I walked out.

Mental health is health of the mind, just as oral health is health of the mouth, or heart health is health of the heart. Being unseen does not leapfrog it past the physical and into the spiritual. Mental illness is a sickness. It is real. We can pray for all illnesses and all disabilities, absolutely, and we should believe for healing from a God who is still very much alive and able to offer it. BUT, we cannot and should not dismiss every sufferer of a mental illness as a sinner whose lack of faith keeps them suffering. We cannot toss some prayers towards a bipolar person and consider it enough. We cannot shrink away from the schizophrenic in fear and cannot offer verses in place of therapy. God can do it, but that doesn’t mean He does every time, and a lifelong struggle with mental illness is no more indicative of someone’s relationship with God than their height or hair color. It’s in their genetic makeup, a physical issue, and the sooner the church stops mishandling the mentally ill people the sooner they’ll stop leaving the church in droves.

Quick attitude check – when I mentioned the woman earlier who was struggling with anxiety and depression, I said she didn’t need clichés, she needed medication. How did you feel when you read that? In my work and my every day life I meet a lot of people who are faced with mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one, people who will take ibuprofen for a fever, Nyquil for a cold, and yes, insulin for diabetes, but will view medication for mental health struggles as weak, unnecessary, or even optional. “What a shame,” they think, brows furrowed, when they hear of medication, of therapy, “If only they could fight a little harder.”

Church, the mentally ill are fighting. They’re fighting harder than most. And medication is just one tool in their arsenal as they wage war against a disease that would claim their relationships, their jobs, their lives. The mentally ill have to work harder than we do to make it into church. They have to fight harder than we do to make it out of bed some days. They walk into a church full of people who don’t understand them, who judge them, who offer little real help. They get forgotten about or talked about. They’re prayed for but not visited. The mentally ill are those who need our help and love, not our opinions. We can and should pray for them, but we cannot dismiss their continued battles as lack of faith or time with the Father.

God is the Healer, He is Jehovah-Rapha. He can heal people, deliver them of their afflictions, and by His stripes we ARE healed… but what if that healing doesn’t come until we are made complete in His presence, if healing on this earth eludes us and some among us suffer until Heaven? Are they any less faithful? Are they any less Christian? Are we better, stronger, more righteous than those crushed by depression? Is our faith more prized than that of someone paralyzed by anxiety? Is bipolar disorder a lifestyle we’d rather not associate with because we disagree with the actions of the person with the diagnosis? NO! I cannot say it emphatically enough – NO! We are not granted only salvation or mental health – God’s children are allowed His grace in any mental state as much as they are in any physical. 

The church must stop viewing mental illness as sinful, optional, fleeting, or even nonexistent. We must implement real programs to help the people around us who are suffering, and if we can’t implement them then we must refer to those who can. We must up our empathy. We must be as concerned for the depressed as we are for the impoverished. We must cease to view any human imperfection as the fault of the imperfect running off the perfection of God. We must shut the heck up about our own opinions and experiences when faced with someone we can’t possibly relate to, and just love them.

Mental illness is in your church, friend. Don’t shudder, don’t judge, just go love.

 

Related Posts: Loving the Mentally Ill , The Church is Not Our Mirror

Author: Jen

I am the wife of an insanely hot husband and the momma of three precious and exhausting kiddos. I have been given way more than I could ever deserve and I really love naps.

2 thoughts on “The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church”

  1. Heather Belmares says:

    I love this post. It is very well written and highly educational. I have dealt with these issues in my own biological family. I would love to ask you some questions regarding this topic. Please feel free to email me as this is a very sensitive subject.

  2. Cristy S. says:

    Well said. It was never the Lord’s intent that we judge others but love them. I struggle to understand my loved one’s illness only because I tend to feel the brunt of it when it is not getting treatment. We should not have to hide any illness in the church, least of all mental illness. There are whole families that need help. This is an excellent start! xoxo

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