May is Mental Health Awareness Month and as a graduate student pursuing a degree and career as a Professional Counselor, I could not let this month pass without using this platform to shed some light on mental illness.
I grew up in the Church and I am generally grateful for the path my life has taken in that regard. Sure, I have my issues with the way those in the Church have handled a number of things but I also do not believe in complaining about something that I am not willing to do my part to change. Somehow, I managed to learn that in church too.
In my experience, the American Church as a whole has not fared well at tackling hot button issues – racism, sexism, human sexuality, mental health, etc. There were so many things I remember learning were wrong while growing up, only to see it actively happen in the church before my eyes. You know…like how we would read the Church Covenant before Communion that clearly had the line “to abstain from the use of, or sale of alcohol or intoxicating drinks” only to know many of the people around me were heading home to turn up (and I mean turn UP in a way that affects their whole being) right after service. Open secrets. Or hearing whispers of people struggling with the effects alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and everyone acting like nothing is wrong – or depending on who the accused abuser is, totally ignoring it. Open secrets. Everyone who died in church didn’t die because of old age – some drank themselves to death, some lived unhealthy lives, some committed suicide. Open secrets.
Here’s my point – mental illness and the church’s lack of addressing this issue has been one of those silent killers in the church. People have been struggling with the symptoms of mental illnesses for years and have been coming to churches to understand how to properly cope with the symptoms. Unfortunately, in many cases, the answers have been some semblance of the following – 1) what sin are you struggling with?, 2) Have you fasted and prayed about it?, 3) the devil is busy, 4) Keep praying *grabs oil to anoint the illness out of you*. Except…in many cases that’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works.
I do not want to dismiss the possibility in some cases that there are spiritual components to what people are dealing with and should therefore be handled with lots of prayer. Prayer, for me, is never not an answer. But, as with many things in life, prayer should accompany some action. And before a problem can be addressed, there must be acknowledgment that there is a problem.
With the growing visibility of the number of pastors committing suicide, like the case of Pastor Teddy Parker of Macon, GA, and the high profile loss of megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, to suicide, there is a bit of a stirring now in some church circles that mental health is an issue that needs to, at the very least, be discussed in the church beyond praying bad feelings away. The Warrens talked candidly after Matthew’s death about their son’s battle with depression over the years and how they opted to use both prayer and mental health professionals to try to alleviate some of the pressure he felt while he was alive. Now, Saddleback (Rick Warren’s church) has been engaging in some conversations around mental health awareness. Mental illness is not just depression and there are many actions that we see that can be traced back to some type of mental illness or disorder.
Treatment for mental illness can be traced back to at least 400 B.C. where the Greek physician Hippocrates treated mental illnesses as a disturbance in physiology instead of demonic possession. What’s clear is that throughout the ages, mental illness and the symptoms that accompany them have been misunderstood on some level and have therefore not been properly addressed because they have not been properly understood. There’s perhaps no other place where this rings true more than in the church. According to a survey by LifeWay Research in 2013, 48% of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born again Christians believe that prayer and Bible Study ALONE is enough to cure mental illness. FORTY EIGHT PERCENT. What’s more telling in the research is “Americans who never attend church services are the least likely to agree that churches welcome those with mental illness. Those who attend weekly see churches as welcoming” (Stetzer, 2013). Despite a majority of Christians believing that churches should do more to prevent suicide, many people who don’t attend church on a regular basis don’t believe that they would be welcome with a mental illness. That says a lot.
Some of the apprehension, I’m sure, is what is supposedly this ongoing feud between faith and science. There are protectors of the way in both camps who do not believe that any level of integration can exist. I am not of that belief. I believe that if God is as big and great as we say He is, He is not scared of any way He can be seen or understood, even if that comes from outside of the church. Basically – all truth is God’s truth. He can use the Bible and he can use a counseling technique to make you whole.
In the next part of this blog, I am going to discuss specific ways I believe the church can do a better job at advocating for mental health awareness. Among those suggestions is further training for clergy (who many times are who people come to with their symptoms and are often ill-equipped to handle the situation), continued break down of oppressive practices, and incorporating holistic practices into the life of the church.
– Stetzer, E. (2013). Mental Illness and the Church: New Research from on Mental Health from LifeWay Research. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/mental-illness-and-church-new-research-on-mental-health-fro.html.
– PBS (2002). American Experience – Timeline: Treatments for Mental Illness. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/nash/timeline/.