Mental illness in a theological context

mental illness

I was the lone theologian among psychologists sitting on the “Faith and Mental Illness” panel my alma mater’s chapter of The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) was hosting.

This panel, unbeknownst to me, had been scheduled as the pinnacle event at the end of a week filled with much-anticipated conversations and workshops.

After what turned into a febrile debate about the merits of the biomedical model of mental illness (essentially, that mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain), audience members began forming a line to ask questions.

It turned out, most of their questions were for me and a majority of them were some version of, “My [insert family member here] doesn’t believe you need to go to a doctor for any of that ‘mental stuff,” you just need to pray harder. How do I respond to that?”

These were questions I’d been wrestling with for years.

I had maybe five minutes to respond.

Here is what I said:

“The Church has a long history of responding to distress – the term ‘mental illness’ is relatively recent – with exorcism, which has morphed into the belief that sick people don’t have enough faith.

“What that basically says is that those who suffer from mental, emotional, physical or spiritual distress are not only ineligible for God’s grace since they would need to do something more (pray) to get it, but they are so lacking because they’re suffering.

“I’d remind your family member, gently of course, that Christ says the exact opposite – it is the sick who need a doctor.”

Perhaps the reason this was the most common question I received is because the Church as a whole has remained largely silent on mental illness even as the culture has become a safer place for those with lived experience to share their stories.

To be clear, mental illness remains highly stigmatized in the culture, too, but I’ve only been to one church where the pastor openly preached about it and have felt more comfortable talking about my own lived experience with nonbelievers than with those Christians.

Silence breeds ignorance, fosters misinformation and encourages fear.

There has been great theological work done on theology of race, gender, even disability; there is still not systematic theology of mental illness.

Because the Church has continued to ignore mental health, its members legitimately don’t know how to respond to mental-health issues.

Those without specific training in psychology, counseling, social work and other such fields probably care very much for their friends or family members who are suffering, but they likely feel unequipped to help and worry that they may do more harm they good.

It makes sense that they would turn to the One they believe is all-powerful and all wise.

But this is one reason why my generation (I’m a Millennial, albeit an ‘old’ one) is leaving the body in droves: praying for people with mental illness, whether privately in your own home, briefly after service or in extended prayer ministry (which, in my experience, often turns into a bombardment of exhortations to forgive one’s traumatizer), is not working.

It’s not that I think prayer is necessarily ineffective for mental and emotional distress.

It’s also not that I think all mental-health issues are purely physical and lack any spiritual or relational component.

But Jesus didn’t actually pray for the sick – not in the “let me pray on this and get back to you” way that many of us who have lived experienced of mental-health challenges have experienced from well-meaning church folk.

Jesus healed the sick.

He didn’t use prayer as an excuse to detach from relationship or as a reason to delay responding to those in distress, physical or otherwise.

And he expects us to do the same. He did not tell us to pray for the sick, He told us to “Heal the sick…” Continue reading

  • Megan Wildhood is a creative writer, scuba diver and saxophone player working at a crisis center in Seattle,WA. She is currently working on a novel narrated by a character with a mental-health diagnosis. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Theology Megan wants to connect with readers, activists and weary humans around issues of mental health, challenging dysfunctional systems conflict and defiant hope.
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