Mental Health Requires More Than Spiritual Exercise

A recent study has confirmed a link between sleep apnea and depression, something researchers have been looking at for several years. In fact, depression has been linked to various sleep disorders, and connections between sleep and depression are complex, with both influencing both. But this new Australian study announces an interesting finding: some people with symptoms of depression find effective relief in CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) treatment for sleep apnea. In other words, treat the sleep problem and the depression goes away.

In case you’re curious, CPAP involves blowing air into the lungs continuously during sleep, via a machine that looks kind of like a World War 2 flight mask. I’m told the experience for a sleeping partner is a little like lying next to Darth Vader. But that’s beside my point.

My point is more like this. Besides helpful information, this discovery provides an illustration of the many and complex links between our mental health and other aspects of our health–indeed, other aspects of who are in general. It provides more clear evidence that depression and depression-like symptoms are often caused by physiological conditions that are unaffected by a person’s spiritual health. It highlights the absurdity of a common practice among many Christians: insisting that addressing spiritual issues is the only valid or acceptable way to address mental health issues.

Imagine a man with sleep apnea and depression-like symptoms. Because sleep apnea is not visible (although it can be audible to any poor soul who sleeps in the same house), the real problem is not clear. The man goes to his church for help in dealing with depression, and that church sends him to a counselor or a pastor who insists the solution is to read the Bible, pray, and meditate on God’s truth. These are good practices–but they do not cure sleep apnea. The source of the problem is still present. Eventually he goes to the doctor for a physical and mentions he feels tired all the time. A series of questions leads to a sleep study, which leads to a diagnosis of sleep apnea, which leads to sleeping in a Darth Vader mask. And after three months of this CPAP therapy, the symptoms of depression have cleared.

If the man hadn’t had the conversation with his doctor, he may have suffered needlessly for the rest of his life. And what did the church give him? Perhaps an incentive to engage in spiritual practices that are good for him. But perhaps along with that came a sense that the church claims to offer more than it really does. An impression that faith is impotent against what we claim it will conquer–and that perhaps it’s impotent altogether. A false understanding that we have nothing to learn from those outside our walls who closely study what God has made and are as capable of learning from it as we are (perhaps more if we are quick dismiss its importance in the belief that only spiritual issues really matter).

How about the woman who experiences depression because her thyroid is not functioning properly? Another person who feels depressed because of a family situation that absolutely needs to change? Someone who is squeezed nearly flat by a job that requires constant management over powerful emotions no one is allowed to express? Someone who is socially isolated? Reading the Bible, confessing sin, and other spiritual practices are important for all of these people. But none of them will be “fixed” by these practices. Prayer and Bible reading won’t address any of the acute problems. And insisting they address them in this way may keep them from finding the fairly straightforward solution they actually need.

There is much we don’t understand about how our brains work. But I think we have enough evidence to stop confusing the brain with the soul. While they may be inextricably linked, they are not one and the same. We cannot address spiritual issues, ignore physical, mental, and emotional issues, and expect to be whole and healthy people. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God has not created us with an “easy” button. Our complex selves reflect his glory and require nurture.

Addressing physical, psychological, and emotional problems using the best tools we have, based on our very best knowledge, is not “worldly” or godless work any more than fixing cars with the proper tools. Incidentally, my car’s “check engine” indicator just lit up yesterday. I know that God knows more about cars than my local mechanic; does that mean I should just pray about the car problem or take it to my pastor? Or should I rely on the wisdom of my auto mechanic (about whose spiritual beliefs I am in ignorance), who understands how cars work and possesses the tools necessary for diagnosis and repair? I know which is likely to get me farther (literally).

Truth discovered outside the church is no less true.

I don’t believe we need to be shy or apologetic about offering hope in Christ and the holistic benefits of spiritual practices. But we have no reason to behave as if the church has all the answers and the brain is God’s domain in a way that’s different from the way everything else is. When we hold to this kind of arrogance, we not only keep the rest of the world at arm’s length; we also discourage some people from receiving the relief and real help they need. That’s tragic. And it’s not what we’re here for.

7 Comments
  1. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for speaking the truth in wisdom. If we could all “stop confusing the brain with the soul” we would be so much more empathetic to those suffering with mental illness.

  2. Extremely well said and true. Far too many Christians treat emotional problems, including mental illness as if they should be left to God’s domain. It is ineffective and shaming, as well as destructive to the person and their relationships. This idea even extends to relationship problems. People pray and “wait” for God to fix the difficult person in their lives. God doesn’t do that either. We have to choose to address our personality, emotional, and relationship problems. It takes work and time. There is no instant miracle cure for mental illness nor for emotional wounds. l

  3. Paul Woodhouse says:

    Amy, right on target. The more I read your stuff the more I appreciate you.

  4. Pat Racklyeft says:

    I would just like to know what denomination of church you are speaking of. My church is not like what you describe.

    • Amy says:

      Hi, Pat. My church is not like this either, but many people have experienced this kind of erroneous teaching in churches of various kinds, or in the attitudes of specific Christians you can find in a variety of churches. There is no denomination that has the corner on this kind of teaching. In fact, people of other faiths (and no faith) frequently have erroneous beliefs about mental illness. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed mental illness was caused by evil spirits. But what I’m addressing is the kind of teaching and assumptions that many people hear in the Christian community when others try to fix their mental health problems (or the problems of people they love) with purely spiritual solutions. Here is an example of a school of thought that has influenced many churches: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nouthetic_counseling

  5. Helma says:

    Thanks Amy! This is exactly what I was waiting for. I love how you explain things in detail with good examples

© 2015 Amy Simpson.