A Conversation about Mental Health and Faith

As a writer and advocate for people affected my mental illness, I’m excited to tell you about another contribution to our growing national conversation about mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a fitting time to increase our knowledge of mental illness. One of the ways we can grow in understanding is by discussing our own experiences and hearing others’ stories.

To that end, on Patheos this week, pastor, blogger, and former psychiatrist Adrian Warnock is hosting a broad conversation about mental health, including bloggers from across Patheos and beyond. Everyone is invited to contribute, either on your own blog or in the comments section here. At the end of the week, Adrian will collect quotes and links from a sample of the contributions and post them on Patheos.

I’m also happy to say that my book Troubled Minds is featured in the Patheos Book Club through May 15, and the sample of contributions will be posted there as well.

You can read all about this conversation here. Please consider joining in and contributing your own answer to this week’s question (well, I guess technically it’s two questions): How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?

Here’s my answer, my contribution to the conversation:

My religious community is the evangelical American church. This community’s historical perspective on mental illness has been mixed. Some have seen mental illness as solely a spiritual problem, whose remedy is more faith, more prayer, or repentance from hidden or deeply entrenched sin. Others have assumed all mental illness is caused by demon possession or demonic influence and cause for exorcism. Some have seen it as cause for shame and silence, mostly a behavior problem that should be controlled or ignored. And still others have seen mental illness as just that–illness, a reason for compassion and treatment based in sound medicine and loving care.

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.

In my personal experience, the church has mostly chosen silence. When schizophrenia joined our family, this silence convinced me the church didn’t want to hear my difficult questions about why my gentle and Jesus-loving mother had become a different person. I was pretty sure the church didn’t have answers to those questions. And I figured that must mean God didn’t have much to say about it either.

But God didn’t let me stay in this place of shame and silence. And he didn’t let me languish forever with the misunderstanding that he and his church have nothing to say about mental illness. We have plenty to say, and we need to start saying it.

Now, my faith is my main motivator for speaking up about mental illness, sharing my family’s experience, and spreading a message of hope. My faith causes me to view mental illness as another tragic consequence of our open and ongoing rebellion against God–for which he has lovingly provided the remedy. I have great hope for people affected by mental illness. They have never had more hope for productive life than they do now. But I have a different kind of hope as well; I wrote about this hope in Troubled Minds:

This hope is not based in what the church can do or in the efforts of a few committed and hard-working individuals. It is based in the power and grace of Christ, who is always with us and who will not allow anything to separate us from his love. “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Rom 8:38).

This hope is also based in the comfort of God’s constant presence with us, even when we can’t feel him and when trouble threatens to overwhelm us. As Paul wrote,

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:8-10)

Our hope is rooted in our knowledge that something much better is on its way. For no matter how deep the darkness, how painful life can be in this decaying world, as children of God we can always look forward to the day when “our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength” (1 Cor 15:43).

7 Comments
  1. Linda Babikian says:

    It has been about two years since my son’s diagnosis of Bi-Polar & Schizophrenia. This changed his life forever, it changes our entire family forever. I am a a Christian of 30 plus years that attends a Church of God Church but a close second to my heart is years previously as a member of the Assemblies of God church. Historically my church experience I would say is that we attend is most compassionate ; they currently play an active roll in prayer/praying for my son and all of the family. We do have support but at the same time we are met with stigma because people are afraid of what does not fall into their theology or experience or or both. They feel the need to come up with some great revelation to “fix it”. We are treated like we are lacking in faith or that we right speaking enough in faith. I decided that it is okay that they don’t understand and to not be angry because of ignorance but I cuts my to my soul and makes me feel isolated. We go to a NAMI meetings (a non-christian neutral support group) to help and support and get it there. What makes me deeply sad but I am asking God to use me!
    How is my faith shaped today and how do I see mental illness? Before my son’s diagnosis I was much like the “average” christian I had been taught that it is a spiritual-demonic “thing” because of something done or sin. I have a deep personal relationship with the Lord. I sought the Lord for answers. Many answers have come that I cannot write in this forum but I can say that it is none or the above! I was taught wrong. Once I understood that mental illness, specifically SERIOUS persistent mental illness (SPMI) are brain disorders I helped me to understand the “what”, “who” (it can happen to anyone) and the “why” (I may never know why but I will trust His). People with SPMI and families that live with them need our love. We are called to love them, period. They need the Word of God and the ministry of the church to help them. If the churches want to be the “hospital for sick people”, like a hospital it will usually treat walkins…
    If there is no one to give them the word of God and love them they will miss out on this truth – Christ our hope, forever no matter what. It shapes my future because I know, I know that I know that I have power to live everyday because of Jesus Christ. We need to of course educate about mental illness. I would close with this thought… Pastors, teacher and preacher, lay ministers and lover of God “as much as you did it to the least of these you did it unto me”.

  2. Emma says:

    I saw the quote from you on Adrian Warnock’s blog – I’ve also blogged about his conversation, because the only thing I blog about is mental health and Christian faith!
    My own background is a bit strange – given that I have a culturally-Christian family (and school), ended up studying divinity at university without a personal faith, had a horrible episode diagnosed as bipolar, and only then came to faith! I was lucky that I didn’t grow up with any misconceptions about mental illness being the result of a lack of faith or demonic possession or anything similar – I thought about it as just an illness, albeit that I was scared of “mad people” and held the general cultural view that mental illness makes the person dangerous. I only came across the mentally-ill-as-spiritually-deficient thing when I was unwell, which did cause me some pain, however I did not have enough connection with the internet people I found, and the highly conservative books I read, to really be affected by those ideas.
    I don’t know, in the church I attend, whether people hold those views of mental illness as I have not yet had the courage to tell them. (Which was hard when I won best newcomer at the Christian new media awards in the UK last year! I wanted to tell everyone!) However I am comforted by the fact that I told our local baptists, and they evidently hold the same view as me, and you.
    Anyway, wanted to say that this is my first time on your blog and I’m looking forward to reading more.
    Emma

  3. Mental illness is not really talked about, especially in the Christian community. We at the IN2G show have discussed this topic. Check out our video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0rgtxNv5ALo

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