What Should Christians Believe About Mental Illness?

What Should Christians Believe About Mental Illness?

Those who know me best may realize this is not the sort of question I pose. I do not suggest that there is one uniform belief about mental illness that ought to be held by those who follow Jesus teachings and consider themselves Christians. Nevertheless, many spiritual and theological concepts have been conducive to positive mental health long before science had even defined mental health. Some other spiritual and theological concepts have been misapplied and worsened mental health consequences or at least interfered with proper treatment. Indeed, there have at times been many less than productive attitudes towards mental illness professed by some Christians.

One fallacy is that mental illnesses are caused by demons, bad spirits, or sin. The subject of mental illness is simply too broad and complex to be summarized here, and I am certainly not a qualified expert, but certainly many mental illnesses are rooted in physical or physiological disorders. Another unhelpful fallacy is that mental illness can be overcome by Bible study and prayer alone. In my view, I believe the Jesus of the Bible and the Christ of faith desire the best mental health outcomes for everyone.

Christian extremists who want to dismiss the entire fields of psychology and psychiatry would do well to return to a more Biblical viewpoint. Attitudes dismissive of psychology and psychiatry might be lessened by reading the original Greek word ψυχῇ  or psyche in those places where it is translated into English as soul.

For example: “He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your psyche, and with all your mind.’” Matthew 22:37. Mental health practitioners who focus on the psyche and Christian pastors who minister to the soul are approaching the same person. Pastors who minister to the bruised and brokenhearted and psychiatrists who treat patients with mental illnesses ought to be aligned in their efforts and increasingly are.

But it would also be a fallacy to say that spiritual health and wholeness has no role in positive mental health or mental health recovery. Scientific studies suggest that indeed moral injury can occur, meaning that moral shame leads to trauma and traumatic effects.

One might even say that consensus is forming within the mental health community over the positive role that spirituality and faith-based awareness plays in mental health outcomes.

“On the whole, epidemiological and cross-sectional studies indicate that spiritual beliefs and practices are associated with better mental health, well-being, and life satisfaction …. There is also evidence that spiritual beliefs and practices can positively affect outcome in clinical populations, including patients with psychiatric disorders.” See Koszycki, Diana, et al. “A multifaith spiritually based intervention for generalized anxiety disorder: A pilot randomized trial.” Journal of clinical psychology 66.4 (2010): 430-441.

As Steve Sullivan has written: “The Greek ‘‘psyche’’ from which we derive ‘‘psychology’’ and ‘‘psychiatry’’ is translated in most English versions of the New Testament as ‘‘soul’’ and is considered to be the focal point of most Christians’ spirituality as well as that of the world’s major religious traditions. This shared nomenclature suggests common ground between religions (particularly Christianity) and mental health sciences. While religion and psychiatry use different vocabularies and methodologies to understand human experiences, their goals overlap and are often congruent. For example, both religion and mental health services seek to provide emotional well-being and emphasize the importance of relationships for their parishioners or clients (Levin and Chatters 1998).” See Sullivan, Steve, et al. “The pew versus the couch: Relationship between mental health and faith communities and lessons learned from a VA/clergy partnership project.” Journal of religion and health 53.4 (2014): 1267-1282.

In many instances, ministers are called upon to be mental health first responders. We meet people in our congregations and in the community who may be experiencing mental health issues. As we get to know the people we meet, we may need to perform an informal assessment of the person’s spiritual and religious background as well as any known or undiagnosed mental health conditions. All parishioners and persons in the community can benefit from spirituality, mindfulness and positive mental health practices. Discovering the most effective pathway to spiritual practices can be an important part of the ministers role in counseling and supporting a parishioner. Referral to mental health professionals is also a vital responsibility of clergy.

It is difficult to state with certainty what causes mental health disorders, but quite a bit is known about their symptoms and considerable advancement has been made in treatment programs using medication and psychotherapy. Among the most common mental health disorders are: anxiety / panic, depression, alchohol / substance abuse, bipolar disorder, attention deficit, obsessive-compulsive, schizophrenia and eating disorders. All of these conditions, and others not specified here, deserve to be properly treated by mental health professionals.

There is a terrible lack of freely available mental health services to help persons seek treatment for these mental health conditions. Society places far too much stigma and far too few resources upon the need to solve these problems. It is my prayer that all those who need care and compassion may receive the blessings of mental health treatment that they need.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and psyche and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Spiritual Practices for Today

Download or open the Community of Christ app on your smartphone or visit www.cofchrist.org to read today’s Daily Bread and Prayer for Peace.

After reading the Daily Bread article, consider these questions:

How am I or can I be in the forefront?

Where is God calling me today?

Pray: God of Health and Wholeness, bring calm to our souls, our psyches, attend to us when we cry. Give us strength of mind and let us find your will in our lives. You are great, O God. Let each day be filled with the comfort we need. We seek your grace, forgiveness and love for those times when we are adrift. Anchor us to your love. Lead us into your kin-dom. Amen.

Read Galatians 6:2

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

What word or phrase caught your attention in this passage?

Read the passage again. How is this passage speaking to you today?

Pray the Mission Prayer: God, where will your Spirit lead today? Help me be fully awake and ready to respond. Grant me the courage to risk something new and become a blessing of your love and peace. Amen.

2021 Guiding Question: Are we moving towards Jesus, the peaceful One?