This post first appeared on October 6 on Patheos as a guest blog of Reba Riley’s Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome
In honor of National Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 5-11), I invited minister and social worker Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund to write this post about some of harmful lies told in Christian communities about mental illness and faith. She is the author of Blessed are the Crazy: breaking the silence about mental illness, family & church (Chalice Press)which is both a memoir of her own family’s struggle with mental illness and a resource for faith-based organizations to provide healing and comfort for those who suffer.
Lie #1: God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
This statement echoes across the Christian landscape. Intended to comfort the afflicted, it actually lays an ugly guilt trip on the person suffering. To say that mental illness is something that “God gave you” implies that God wants you to suffer. “Mental illness is part of God’s will, and you are supposed to be strong enough to handle it.” FALSE!
Lie #2: Daily prayer and bible reading alone cures mental illness.
According to a recent LifeWay poll, nearly half of Evangelical Christians between the ages of 18-30 believe that prayer and bible study alone can cure mental illness. This belief is in direct opposition to medical research that confirms that many types of mental illness are best treated by a combination of cognitive, behavioral and pharmaceutical treatment plans supervised by mental health professionals. To say that mental illness can be cured by spiritual practices alone discourages Christians from getting the mental healthcare they need to treat and recover from mental illness.“God cannot use scientific advances to heal the human body.” FALSE!
Lie #3: Depression is a sin, a curse, or demon possession.
It’s true that we do not yet fully understand all of the environmental and biological causes of mental illness. Yet to state that mental illness is only caused by things in the “spiritual realm” denies what we know to be true: mental illness is a brain disease. While there are certainly spiritual aspects to both the cause and the treatment of mental illness, mental illness is not simply a spiritual disease, curse or demon possession. To talk of a person’s mental illness as a result of a sin, curse, or demon possession is to further stigmatize, shame, and isolate the person. “Mental illness is the result of a sin, curse or demon possession.” FALSE!
Lie #4: If you loved Jesus more you would be happier.
This is a Christian twist on the “just try harder” lecture. If only you just loved Jesus more. If only you just believed more. If only you just let Jesus all the way into your heart, then you would be happier. This belief denies the reality of clinical depression that is not a matter of simply trying harder. Jesus loves all people, including people who have mental illness. Loving Jesus more is something we strive for as Christians, but not because it will make us happier. “Mental illness is a result of not loving Jesus enough.” FALSE!
Lie #5: You can’t be a Christian if you have a mental illness.
This is an old one, something that saints in the church have struggled with for centuries. We think that perhaps we are not deserving of God’s love because we have a mental illness. We do not know how God could accept us or love us because we are not perfect. So we think that a person with mental illness cannot be a Christian, cannot be a leader in the church, cannot be an ordained minister. Ministers, especially, are not supposed to have mental illness. But the truth is that Christians are humans, just as sick, broken, and in need of healing and wholeness as everyone else. As a person with mental illness, being a Christian can be a way to find compassion, support and love from a community of faith. “True Christians are immune from mental illness.” FALSE!
Sarah’s recommendations for healthy, faith-based mental health resources are as follows:
Pathways to Promise
Mental Health Ministries
Interfaith Network on Mental Illness
United Church of Christ Mental Health Network