What do Christians think about mental illness? There are a lot of stereotypes out there, unfortunately. You can find people, Christian or not, who have TERRIBLE ideas like these:
- Mental illness is not real. Anybody who claims to have it just needs to try harder (take more vitamins, put on a happy face, get out of the house—fill in the obnoxious advice of your choice);
- Mental illness is the same thing as demon possession;
- Mental illness is the result of doing something bad—it’s the result of sin or guilt;
- Mental illness is something you should treat through faith healing instead of using drugs or doctors.
We have to confess that there are a lot of people, even Christians, who believe the ridiculous ideas above. But that’s not what Christianity teaches, and that’s not what the Bible says.
Mental Illness Is Real
Mental illness is a real thing, just as physical illness is a real thing. In fact, quite a few mental illnesses have physical components related to the brain or endocrine system. The World Health Organization (WHO) says, “One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.”
What Is Mental Illness?
What exactly is mental illness? The American Psychiatric Association defines it this way: “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”
A lot of people automatically think of unusual, over-the-top behavior when they hear the words “mental illness”—things like yelling and screaming, taking clothes off in public, or even violence. But most mental illness is not like that. A lot of it is very quiet and may go unnoticed by anybody but the person who has it, who may suffer in silence for years. Depression, for instance, is a crippling but virtually invisible illness for millions of people. And you may never know that your neighbor, friend, or relative has an anxiety disorder unless he or she tells you so.
And yet mental illness causes a lot of pain. It impacts millions of people, troubling their lives and making it hard for them to function—destroying relationships, wiping out opportunities, taking away joy.
Which brings up an important point—because mental illness is so widespread and can go hidden for years, it’s almost guaranteed that someone you care about has had it. This means that mental illness affects everybody—either directly or through someone in their lives.
Mentally Ill Christians?
Mental illness is not choosy—it strikes old and young, rich and poor, Christian and not. We recognize that fact. Christian faith doesn’t cause mental illness and it doesn’t prevent it.
“But what about the religious maniacs we hear about?” you may be asking. “I got accosted by a crazy street preacher just the other day. Didn’t their Christian faith cause their mental illness?”
No, of course not. But a person’s mental illness may take on a religious “flavor,” because human beings are not divided but whole beings—their physical, psychological, social, spiritual and intellectual aspects form a single united person, and every aspect influences all the others. What is important to people doesn’t change just because they become mentally ill. And so one person may express his illness in religious ways, just as another gets fixated on a romantic partner and a third focuses on bizarre politics.
Not a Cause, Not a Cure
If Christian faith doesn’t cause mental illness, it also doesn’t cure it—though we recognize that faith in God can be a powerful support to anybody going through suffering, including this kind. But do Christians expect miraculous healing for mental illness? This is a complicated question.
The answer is basically the same as for physical illnesses. Yes, Christians believe that God has the power (if he chooses to use it) to cure mental illness instantly, by miracle. And like anybody else, we hope and pray for God to do that. Nevertheless, God’s track record in the Bible and down through the ages tells us that doing a miracle is not his usual choice. Although Jesus healed thousands of people, he didn’t heal them all—not even necessarily the guys lying down on the mat right next to the person he DID heal (see John chapter 5). In the same way, the great Christian leader Paul got healed on one occasion but not on another—and that time, God explicitly said “No” to him (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into all the guesses and theories for why God does or doesn’t do miracles. Still, that means that in cases of mental illness, just as with physical illness, Christians rely on the more common gifts of God—on doctors and counselors and medicine. As Christians, we believe those are gifts from God too. And so we use them (barring a few extremists among us who have been badly misled). We pray for healing, but we also take our medicine.
Christians as Caregivers
A lot of Christians go beyond that. There are many Christians who serve as psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and pharmacists. Many work in mental hospitals or clinics. Others care for family members at home. We believe that this is the service God wants us to be doing. For some of us, this is God’s chosen calling for our lives, and doing it is our way of serving God as well as people.
“But what about demon possession?” you may be asking. “There are a lot of people in the Bible who act mentally ill, but the Bible says they are demon-possessed. Does this mean that everybody with mental illness is actually demon-possessed?”
The short answer is no. Demon possession seems to be a very rare occurrence in the Western world today, although there are still credible reports of it from places like Africa and Asia. And there seems to have been a major upswing in the number of cases during Jesus’ time on earth, which might make sense if we think of Jesus as God himself “invading” our tainted-by-evil earth. Of course the devil would strike back!
And it does still happen occasionally, even today, that people will approach a Christian pastor or leader because they think they themselves or someone else is under demonic power. (The author of this article has had people ask for help for this reason.) The usual procedure is to listen a lot, to pray, and then to get a doctor’s evaluation before doing anything else. Because mental illness is not at all the same thing as demon possession, and if someone is mentally ill, they need appropriate help—not exorcism. (It’s really not like the movies.)
Sin and Guilt
“But what about guilt, then?” some people will ask. “Do people become mentally ill because they did something bad or because God is punishing them?”
Again, the short answer is no. Mental illness is rarely linked to guilt, and no Christian should assume that’s what’s going on in any given case. Jesus’ followers asked him the same kind of question about a man born blind, and Jesus made it extremely clear that the situation was not a punishment (John 9). We live in a world that is contaminated by evil, and sometimes bad things happen to us. That doesn’t mean God is punishing us.
So are there conflicts between Christianity and psychology / psychiatry? There can be, yes. Some schools of psychology are based on ways of thinking that Christianity considers off-base. This is a particular problem with schools of thought that downplay human freedom and responsibility.
There can also be situations where an individual doctor or counselor has a problem with Christianity—for example, attempting to “cure” someone’s faith, or simply pressuring the person to go against it in some particular area. This is more of an ethical problem than it is a real clash between Christianity and the field of mental health—good counselors and doctors won’t do this sort of thing. But of course there are always those in any field who fall short when it comes to ethics.
A more subtle problem exists when people identify a problem that is primarily spiritual in nature but then try to use mental health resources to fix it. Again, this is not common, but it does occasionally crop up. An example would be a person who goes to a counselor because he or she has a severe sense of guilt and wants to be rid of it. If the guilt is irrational, seeing a counselor is a sensible thing to do; but if the guilt is completely justified, a spiritual solution is necessary. Examples would be if the person feels guilty because he or she has harmed a child or violated another person’s trust in a major way. The goal is not just to remove the (totally appropriate) guilt feeling, but even more important, to set the person right with God and the universe. Christianity provides resources to do this through the forgiveness of sin. A person who feels appropriately guilty would be wise to see both a counselor and a pastor to receive both psychological and spiritual care.
To sum up, Christianity considers mental health to be one of the good gifts God gave the human race. When people suffer from mental illness, Christians are to care for them and see to it that they get the treatment they need to recover. We know that we, too, can become mentally ill just as any human being can, and when that happens, we’ll rely on God and other people to help us get better.