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By On August 27th, 2013

How Do Christians Understand Mental Illness?

the-renewal-program-at-brookhavenYou would think from most of the discussion about Christianity and mental health that most Bible-following people don’t believe in mental illness. We talk constantly about the stigma associated with it and tell stories of those who weren’t offered the appropriate support from their religious community, but the reality is more complex. There are certainly those who write off psychiatry and counseling, but there are also many who hold more biological understandings of mental illness.

The issue is, as Christian counselors or psychiatrists, we spend a lot of our time attempting to educate and connect with those who fail to see or understand mental health. But, it is important to distinguish that these people aren’t the entirety of the church or believers. According to Frank Viola, there are actually three common ways Christians understand mental illness, and understanding each perspective allows us to educate and connect with the non-believers of mental illness better.

  1. Mental illness originates from demonic influence or possession. Treatment is to cast out the demons and purify the afflicted. 
  2. Mental illness is psychobabble. “Mental disorders” don’t exist, but are the manifestation or punishment for sinful behaviors. Those with “mental illnesses” must repent and correct their sinful ways, as well as restoring their relationship with God.
  3. Mental illness is a psychological disorder related to physical biology. Mental illnesses are the result of chemical or protein imbalances within our brain, and mental illness is an expression of sickness in the same way hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure is.

Whichever you believe, the other options probably sound ridiculous to you. There is still a strong community that preach of demonic influence as the origin of mental illness, and it is easy to see that a fair number of people believe in the second perspective. But, more and more people are accepting the third viewpoint every day as they or someone in their life is affected by the reality of mental illness.

Interestingly, the first is the hardest to argue against, mostly because documentation of attempts to treat supposed demonic possession is almost entirely from unverified sources, and relies on faith entirely. But, it is easy to see from direct interaction with most mental health patients that literal demons aren’t involved.

The belief that mental illness is the manifestation of sin is a much more pressing issue within the church as I’ve seen numerous friends and family members espouse their understanding as fact and utterly write-off mental health concerns. However, this is the easiest issue to argue against. The belief that mental illness is the expression of sin relies on the idea that those with mental disorders are guilty or deserving of punishment. It also relies on the notion that these people do not have close relationships with God or scripture, or are sinning more than the average person.

Having known countless people who have struggled with mental illness, I can safely say the majority of them believed in God just as strongly as most members of the church, attempted to have an active relationship with the Lord, and are no more sinful than any of us. They are no more deserving than you or I. We all sin. You can’t tell someone to treat their distress by asking for forgiveness or sinning less. We all ask for forgiveness and are blessed. You certainly can’t stop sinning. So what are we to make of mental illness? Does God punish arbitrarily, striking seemingly innocent or good-hearted people stronger than others simply because they are sinners?

It would seem that isn’t the case, especially as many show warning signs of mental illness years before it truly develops. Instead, it makes sense that the majority of mental illnesses spring from biological issues. This can be confusing to observe for a number of reasons. Namely, those with mental illness are better at hiding their struggles with their disease than most of us are at hiding minor problems. Also, it is entirely possible that a fractured or strained relationship with the Lord can contribute to their struggle.

Mental illness may not originate from a pained personal relationship with God, but it is common for those already struggling to feel even more isolated or helpless as they are led to believe they’re problems are the result of not loving God enough. Rather than pulling those people back into the church, the sentiment pushes them away, telling them their love isn’t enough. This exponentially makes matters worse, as their support system is ripped away, and their self-worth further devalued.

To truly help those struggling with mental illness within the church, the last issue must be solved, and the only way to accomplish that is education about what mental illness is and what it looks like. The love of God can work wonders on healing a person’s heart, soul, and mind, but it rarely works as the only treatment. Instead, it should be offered as support, while God works through proper medication and counseling. That way, a person is able to strengthen their relationship with God, while he strengthens them.

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