By Rev. Dr. Scott Rosenthal
There seems to be a grave misunderstanding about the nature and cause of mental illness in the church today. Leaders often imply that sin or a lack of faith is the primary cause. This leads the sufferers to blame themselves, feel extremely guilty, and miss out on experiencing the love and compassion of God.
As one who has lived with Bipolar Disorder for over a decade I have become particularly sensitive to this subject. I have been an active church member, minister, counselor, and student of faith-based mental health.
Admittedly, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of mental illness. There are so many factors that can contribute to its existence. However, research over the last decade is revealing that there is a strong biological correlate. Studies conclusively show that the majority of cases are tied to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Most mental illness is now thought to arise due to physiological causes in the body. In this light, it is no different from any other physical disease such as cancer or hypertension. Patients with biologically based illnesses are not blamed for their condition. Nor should we blame the mentally ill for what is now believed to be largely a disorder of the brain. There is a huge genetic factor that predisposes me to develop mental illness. I have inherited genes from both sides of my family that are responsible for bipolar disorder.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t environmental, spiritual, or personal responsibility factors to be considered. It is wise to investigate all possible causes. When it comes to self-help, there are certainly things we can do to cope and deal with illness more productively. For example the heart patient may need to improve his diet to ensure longevity. The depressed patient may need to seek social support to fight isolation. But the point is — we don’t blame the medically ill for their condition. Nor should we accuse the mentally ill of causing their own problems.
Unfortunately, over the years I have heard and read countless messages from clergy and Christian leaders that cause me great discouragement, self-blame, and a host of negative conclusions about myself.
How does this happen? Often Bible verses are cited as the definitive solution for problems with our behavior, emotions, or thinking. Either a lack of faith or personal sin are often cited as reasons we are not experiencing victory.
For example the admonition to “Count it all Joy” has been used as a prescription for mental health. If we fail to experience Joy, we must be failing to follow God’s will. Similarly, it is implied that the devout Christian will experience countless benefits such as happiness and peace. For example, the fruit of the spirit is often held out as the result of Christian maturity. It’s easy to conclude that if we are experiencing sadness, despair, and hopelessness then we must be missing God somewhere.
Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety make it difficult to experience the positive benefits of following Christ. We wonder if we are just not living the Christian life “right.” When we hear messages that imply we must be doing something “wrong” we feel like the speaker is shooting bullets at our wounded souls. Mental illness predisposes us to think and feel more negatively than would otherwise be experienced by the healthy person.
We already feel tremendous shame and stigma from a society that shuns mental illness. When we hear messages that reek of blame, we feel ostracized. We already criticize ourselves too much for not being able to receive healing. The last thing we need to hear or read from Church leaders is the implication that we are responsible for not enjoying the fruit of the spirit, experiencing healing, or feeling the emotional benefits of heeding biblical promises.
When we hear or read accusatory comments it adds tremendous guilt to the guilt we already feel for not being able to pull ourselves out of a dark pit. The messages we typically hear feel like condemnation for falling short of the will of God. This compounds our suffering. Most of us with mental illness are already trying diligently to find solutions for the pain we feel.
What we desperately need are messages and examples of God’s compassion, understanding, and empathy. We need to embrace the fact that Jesus came to earth to rescue the brokenhearted and offers strength in our weakness. We long to hear more about the forgiveness, grace, unconditional love, and mercy God offers. He invites us to draw near to Him to experience His approval and empathy.
In the church, we need to feel included and accepted as viable members just the way we are. This is the place where we can find enduring hope, warm fellowship, and unconditional love as embodied by its congregants.
The church is ideally positioned to minister to the depressed and anxious. The mentally ill are an ideal mission field. One out of every four church members will experience mental illness, either personally or in the life of a loved one. Once leaders understand and embrace those with psychological problems, they will realize that this population is ripe for the Good News. We need to hear the message that God accepts us just the way we are. Our relationship with Him does not depend on our acting “normal” or feeling a certain way. He wants to walk with us every step we take in our journey of faith.
This isn’t to accuse clergy of missing the boat. It has already been stated that blame causes tremendous harm. There isn’t much training available to prepare church leaders to respond to the concerns of the mentally ill. So let’s invite them to listen to the plight of this special population and seek to meet their unique needs in a variety of ways. Each one of us can play a part in helping our congregations become all God wants them to be.