Everyone seems to have an opinion about mental illness these days. My post on mental health and the church generated a heavy response from pastors and other church leaders struggling with how to more properly respond and care for those dealing with mental illness. But I find that some of the same old misconceptions about mental illness and faith still linger. If I’m honest, I’ve believed and/or communicated many of these misconceptions about mental illness and faith more than I would like to admit at some point in my life.
For most of us, it has taken a knowledgable friend, a hurting family member, or a personal struggle to open our eyes to the disturbing lack of clarity and concern in our society for those battling mental health challenges. My personal ignorance led to my lack of understanding. It also became an excuse (albeit a bad one) to not care and support those navigating complex mental health situations personally or alongside a family member.
As a country and as the church, we can look back on the death of Rick Warren’s son in 2013 as a definitive moment in our collective conscience. Mental health didn’t become real that day; however, our willingness to talk about it and wrestle with its impact on the church and society did change in dramatic ways. I can’t imagine the agony and heartache that Pastor Rick and his wife Kay Warren endured in the ensuing weeks, but I am grateful for how they shared their story openly in order to serve others, process their own grief, and bring a message of hope to all who were struggling with mental illness on a personal level or mental health and the church on a broader, more institutional level. The conference they started, “Mental Health And The Church” was held last week at Saddleback Community Church in California.
We have all had to come to grips with the reality of mental illness. But I find that many misconceptions still exist in our society today about mental illness and faith. Be careful you don’t push these ideas on others or accidentally endorse these ideas with your actions or words:
10 Misconceptions About Mental Illness and Faith
1. Faith and Mental Illness Don’t Mix
If your faith is strong enough, you shouldn’t deal with mental illness. Right? This one is a bunch of baloney.
Some of the “heroes of the faith” struggled with mental illness both in the past and presently in our society. As someone who regularly serves pastors of some of the largest and some of the smallest churches in North America, I find that a large percentage of pastors either presently are battling or once battled some form of mental illness. If that is the case, are we saying that most pastors don’t have a very strong faith? Why would we say that? What would it help? What does that say about our level of understanding about mental health?
2. Medication Only Covers Up a Deeper Spiritual Issue
You shouldn’t take any medication because people that do are hiding their lack of faith. Ever heard this one? I have.
Medication can help restore a hormonal imbalance or help all sorts of other mental health challenges that a person might face. Usually people that are struggling with mental illness need much less judgment and far more understanding. Why don’t we love them for who they are rather than finding something else that we perceive to be wrong with them? Be grateful for their access to medication and the hope and joy it likely restores to their life.
3. Mental Illness is Spiritual and Not Physical
Some people incorrectly believe that all mental illness is a spiritual problem that isn’t connected to our physical bodies. There is a tiny ounce of truth to this statement in that all pain, suffering, frustration, sin, and death is a consequence of the spiritual sin problem of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. From that perspective, mental illness is connected to the original sin problem of Adam and Eve.
But to say that the mental illness someone battles today is a result of their personal sin is foolish at its worst and at minimum extremely presumptive. It leads us to make massive assumptions about a person’s health and their previous experiences. Most mental illnesses are in fact physical illnesses that manifest themselves as a mental illness in a number of ways.
4. Mental Illness Shouldn’t Be Discussed At Church
I don’t hear this one much, but I see it lived out. For many, many years mental illness was treated as a taboo topic that couldn’t be discussed during a worship service or during the sermon. It was almost unheard of for a pastor to readily admit to dealing with some sort of mental illness in front of the congregation. I still see this issue today in the lives of pastors who have lost their jobs due to their battles with a given mental illness. I’ve even heard of one pastor who was let go because of the perceived liability of having a pastor with bipolar or depression on the staff of the church. The legality of these situations is yet another question but these issues get swept under the rug in churches where litigation is understandably discouraged.
5. Mental Health Isn’t Part of the Ministry of the Church
It is one thing to discuss mental health in your church, but it is quite another to integrate mental health services into the ministry of your church. What would that look like? How would you navigate the legal complexity of involving lots of people battling mental illness in your ministry? I understand that question but I also have to point out that if the statistics are correct, pretty much every church in the world is full of people who are battling mental illness. The issue is that you don’t know who they are many times and because of the hostile culture the church has created, these people will often lurk in the shadows and seek help from resources outside the church. What a lost opportunity for us as Christians.
'We need to serve people better by creating a culture of acceptance amongst imperfection.' -- @bradbridges Click To Tweet
6. God Can’t Change People With Mental Illness
God certainly can do whatever He pleases. Although He never does anything that is contrary to His character or His Word. What about people with mental illness? Are they a lost cause? I think not. God can bring about huge changes in those who are struggling with mental illness. At the core of our understanding of mental health in the church is a belief that God is able to make changes that we never dreamed were possible (and He often uses us in the process). What if God were to give a person hope and the church were to love them in such a way that they sought treatment and community as they walked forward in faith? What if God were to change a person in ways we never dreamed were possible? What if?
7) Mental Illness Is the Result of Ignoring God’s Blessings
When a person experiences mental illness, they don’t intend to have a mental health challenge. In depression, for example, people don’t intent to ignore God’s blessing and embrace a pessimistic or sad view of life. Instead, the chemical makeup of their brain causes emotional symptoms or situations that are in many ways beyond that person’s control (I’m not a doctor or giving medical advice but that is my average Joe understanding). So why is it that we want to point the finger at them for being someone that needs more optimism or ability to trust in Jesus? I’m not saying that I’m against optimism or trusting in Jesus but I’m not sure it is correct either to label someone as ignorant of God’s blessings because they are experiencing a mental illness.
8) Mentally Ill People Need An “Insane Asylum” More Than a Friend
Those who walk through life with some form of mental illness usually don’t need to be committed to an institution. My guess is that there are far more people living with mental illness outside of an institution than there are inside of one. Therefore it is incumbent upon us as the church to learn how to love them well and provide encouragement rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that they are a “crazy” person who needs to be “locked up.” What if they are a lonely person in need of a friend and a community who will walk with them through the tough things that come at them in life. (Note: I’m not against mental health institutions at all and I definitely see the value in the important services they provide. My hope is that the church can rise to the occasion to come alongside of those battling mental health challenges rather than delegating it all to others because of our ignorance.)
9) People Battling Mental Illness Are Broken Beyond Repair
If we are honest, we are all broken and will never be able to repair ourselves. None of us has a perfectly “normal” body and mind (whatever normal means). But for some reason, anyone with a mental health issue has often been treated as an other that is outside of the realm of experience of the “typical” adult or child. Those with a mental health challenge are broken just like us and in need of a Savior.
Why wouldn’t we love them with the same love that Jesus loved us? My guess is that in Jesus’ eyes, our sin and brokenness (even if not due to mental illness) is as ugly if not much worse than people who are dealing with mental illness. None of us will ever fully “repair” ourselves and live in a state of perfection outside of the day we arrive in Heaven.
'You aren't perfect in comparison to those dealing with mental illness. We are all broken.' -- @bradbridges Click To Tweet
10) People With a Mental Illness Can’t Really Connect With God
Please tell me you have never believed or communicated this one. It sounds crazy itself, right? Well, yes and no. There are admittedly some people whose experience is so disconnected from ours that we will struggle to ever know fully the extend to which they can understand who God is and have a real connection with Him. There are millions of others who can experience a relationship with God before, during, or after a mental illness or mental health episode.
Let’s work on not writing people off as a lost cost because they acted out in such a way that made us uncomfortable. What type of public or private activity is sufficient to write off someone for good? Are there certain things that a person does which should never be forgiven or which should never be seen in light of a potential mental illness situation? Here is where the rubber meets the road. It is tough to say for sure. If a person does something during a mental health episode and you have reason to believe that the person was mentally incapacitated, to what extent can we say that the person was responsible for their actions? This question is brutally difficult and has far more complexity than I can give it here.
My concern is that we not give up one people, that we maintain hope that they can connect with God in a meaningful way (even if only to them). They were created in God’s image and although the image has been defaced, it hasn’t been erased. What are the legal implications for these types of situation? I’ll leave that to the courts. But in the court of public opinion and especially in our churches, we need to have a much more nuanced approach to those who do things or act in ways that cause us to question their mental capacity. We need to remain open to the notion that we may not be seeing things as clearly as we would with professional help engaged in the situation. We need to embrace the fact that people were created in God’s image and without ignoring earthly wisdom, trust that God can work in and through an individual and those around them in powerful ways.
For additional info on the topic of the misconceptions about mental illness and faith or more generally mental health in the church, see Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson or see my article at the Malphurs Group website on the 5 Components of a Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health in the Church.