Why the Church Is Losing the Mental Health Discussion

January 14, 2013

One in four Americans.antidepressant_pills

That’s how many of us have been treated for some kind of mental illness.  Many of us, it was probably some rather minor, temporary thing.  Others have much more serious situations.  I’d be surprised if there were many of us who don’t have some kind of connection or family history that includes some sort of mental illness.

Thanks to recent events, mental illness has also become a national topic of discussion, though it seems to be getting trumped by guns right now.

And yet, for as important a topic as mental health is, the church is just not doing a very good job addressing it.  As I searched for what church leaders are saying about mental health, it became clear that the church is not having the conversation it should.  Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote last week about having Jesus, but sometimes just needing a Zoloft, and it was one of the most honest things on mental health I think I’ve seen a Christian write in a long time.

Why is the church losing the mental health discussion.  I think I have a few ideas.

Quit Being So Depressed, Sinner

After the Sandy Hook incident, everyone was flippantly posting on Facebook and their blogs.  And while many people were advocating for better mental health services, I saw more than one Christian post something to this effect:

“No pill will do what Jesus can.”

Look, we are all sinners.  Shooting up a school is evil.  What is happening in our society is shameful.  But the implication is that mental illness is somehow different from other health issues.  It’s not real.  It’s just sin.  And all mental health problems would be solved if sick people came to church.

We don’t tell people who have cancer that their disease is just sin. (Well, most of us don’t.)  If someone was in a car wreck and his brain was damaged, we wouldn’t tell him his brain damage was sin.  Yet, we often tell people with equally broken minds to snap out of it, that their real solution is Jesus. 

This unbelievable stigma still exists in huge amounts in the church.  I actually read one “pastor” who said that failing is not a sin.  But becoming discouraged is a sin. (Great job, discouraging people who are already discouraged.) Reading that caused me an unhealthy amount of mental distress and rage.

It’s pastors like this who are probably causing a lot of Christians to become depressed.

The Schizophrenic Who Cried ‘Wolf’

We have a weird thing going on with mental health in our culture.

We are the most medicated people on earth.  We pop pill down our kids’ throats left and right.  Everyone wants to be diagnosed.  We call everything a “disease,” (the correct word, if any, would be ‘illness.’)

I will admit, we’ve probably done quite a bit of crying “wolf” when it comes to mental health.

But just because we know we’re over-medicated, that doesn’t mean none of us are broken.  It surprises me at times how resilient I can be.  And it frightens me at other times how prone I can be to panic, anxiety, or depression.  Our minds are just as fragile as our bodies.

But the church often misdiagnoses a mental problem as a spiritual problem (and our minds and spirits are not the same thing.)  We boil everything down to good and evil.  And then church leaders prescribe the same Jesus flavored pill for every problem.  Well what if someone’s mind is getting in the way of their spirit?  Can we just admit that we have other problems that we actually suffer from?

Anti-Depressant Jesus

A lot of church leaders could make really good drug deals.


See, there are a whole lot of church leaders dealing out this “Jesus” who is really nothing more than a weekly anti-depressant. The people come to church and get their fix of mood lifters.  But the effect wears off quickly.  This is a child’s dose anti-depressant for people who aren’t really depressed.

In this kind of Christianity, it is not okay to admit that you are not okay, that you are depressed, that you are falling apart inside.  That, God forbid, you need a pill.  Because feel-good Christianity only has one prescription, and it doesn’t work on real problems.

The mental health situation in our society exposes feel-good Christianity for the fraud that it is.  And it exposes the inadequate answers that much of the rest of the church has.

And that is why the church is losing the discussion on mental health.

What do you think?  Have you experienced the stigma of mental illness in the church?  Have you or someone you know been told to just snap out of it?

38 responses to Why the Church Is Losing the Mental Health Discussion

  1. Another problematic attitude that exists in Christian circles is to be quick to blame mental health issues on spiritual oppression/demons. I don’t doubt that in some cases there may be some degree of negative spiritual roots to mental health issues. However, it is a dangerous conclusion to jump straight to. Firstly, the likelihood that mental health issues are caused by some other factor or combination of factors, and therefore require a dramatically different response, is high. And secondly, I can say from experience that having the first response to telling someone your concerns about your own mental health be that you are probably demon oppressed makes you want to go hide and not tell anyone else.

  2. Thanks, Matt, this is one of the best pieces of read on mental health and the church. Thanks for hosting this discussion.

    “But the church often misdiagnoses a mental problem as a spiritual problem (and our minds and spirits are not the same thing.) …what if someone’s mind is getting in the way of their spirit?” <—– YES. Thank you for articulating that so well.

  3. People will pray their hearts out for someone with cancer. They will come into their homes and minister to them, become part of their lives, ask about the condition and bring them dinner.

    Get a kid with a mental health issue or a disability along the lines of autism? And they will all avoid your family. Thanks for that. I wrote a bit about it here: http://homeschoolnetc.blogspot.com/search?q=happy+new+year

  4. One of your best, Matt. A lot of people out there saying “Thank you.”

  5. Real illnesses need real treatment. Where I see a problem is this: when my son got married a well meaning friend offered my emotional wife a Xanax. I sort of flipped out! This lady wasn’t a doctor and pills are not candy!! I see this at funerals and weddings all the time – people who medicate themselves through it and then cannot remember anything about it later. Life’s events are something that we are meant to live through and Jesus is still the prince of peace – not Xanax! It seems everyone is carrying around pills. I do worry that we are leaning on medication way too much. BUT FOR YOU NAYSAYERS…We do need to treat mental illness correctly. I do believe the head gets broken like other parts of the body.

  6. Thank you for bringing this topic up so bluntly. I am constantly amazed at the number of clueless pastors/leaders I have heard that have said something, FROM THE STAGE, to the effect of, “If you had a true relationship with Jesus, you wouldn’t need medication. You have a faith problem not a medical problem.”

    So, what makes these pastors/leaders believe that people dealing with mental illness/depression/anxiety/etc haven’t prayed fervently, in tears, to be healed? Effectively, people with mental health issues are told that their faith isn’t real or genuine because of a medical condition.

  7. “We are the most medicated people on earth. We pop pill down our kids’ throats left and right. Everyone wants to be diagnosed. We call everything a “disease,” (the correct word, if any, would be ‘illness.’)”

    Maybe we all want to be apart of the fantasy of “Greys Anatomy”…

    Or we Just want the attention.

    But it is sad that Mentaly ill people really don’t get the attention they need…especially from the church…this needs to change…but of course it would be a challenge and well…challenges are a no no in this society…everything needs to be simple and accessable….actually…don’t even work to get money…thats the way we want it…
    sad but true…
    sad that the Church takes the easy way.

  8. Thank you for saying this. I am both a seminary student and a biblical counselor. I am very thankful for the mentorship of Dr. Larry Cornine at Midwestern who teaches me how God has created us . . Both as spiritual beings and physical beings. My wife passed this onto me and I’m so glad she did. For anyone in the Kansas City area, New Leaf Counseling Center is a great place to go when you are dealing with mental illness and also want to talk to someone who trusts in Christ for all things, including getting the appropriate help needed. Thank you so much for this post.

  9. Thanks for this.

    After my little sister’s first suicide attempt, she had my parents convinced that her problem was a spiritual one—she blamed it on the stress of attending a secular college and switched to some bible college down south, figuring that was all she needed. It took another more “serious” attempt (that she only survived through sheer dumb luck) to convince her that it wouldn’t work.

    My parents attend one of those wave-your-hands-around churches but have not bought into their fellow members’ view of modern medicine. From what my mom tells me there’s an undercurrent there with a tendency to view conventional doctors as pill-pushers who don’t believe in God. Unfortunately, I think that view holds in a lot of churches. Therein lies the problem.

    • Wow. Thank you so much for sharing. How quickly situations can become dangerous. You know, there are fundie cults that are prosecuted for denying members medical attention. It’s just a matter of time when mental health is rolled into that same category. As you illustrated, it can be a matter of life and death.

  10. Excellent post, Matt. Yes, I vividly recall a short conversation at the end of worship with one of the pastors.

    “Hey Ric, how are you doing?”

    “Pretty good, Paul. Thank you.” I was being honest but brief given there were about 200 people and 100 conversations going on in the room at the time.

    “Well, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being fabulous and 1 you’re taking antidepressants, where are you?”

    I stopped smiling and stopped shaking hands and said, “Well then, on that scale, umm… 1.”

    “Oh.” (I had completely surprised him but no more than he had surprised me.) Then he heaped on more, rather obliviously with, “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

    Church is filled with people who believe that if you’re depressed (and worse, taking medical treatment for it) that you are at rock bottom. You get the feeling they have know idea what rock bottom looks like. Ignorance on mental health appears to be widespread AND deep.

    • Oh Ric I so hear you! i had an almost identical conversation with an elder after resisting taking antidepresants for far too long. they were “sorry.to hear it” too..sorry I’d had to resort to taking them?sorry i was a tired stressed out mother? who knows… I wasnt sad or lost, I just felt fried, and then, i felt better.
      Would they have said sorry if I’d also told them about the iron pills i was taking? i doubt it.

      I find it hard to be as well written as you were, i still feel a little riled about it even after all this time.

  11. Great points, Matt. Along that line, one of my greatest concerns of the past several years has been the rise of biblical counselors. (Not the same thing as Christian counseling or counselors that happen to be Christian.) While I have no doubt there are some biblical counselors who are both wise and gracious, my anecdotal experience is that these are few and far between. After graduating with my Masters in Social Work, I toyed with the idea of private practice. While interviewing with a wonderful practice, we discussed where I could get referrals. The owner of the practice also attended my church and told me flat out our church would never send referrals to the practice. Instead, people were sent to the primary church’s biblical counseling center. In order to be a biblical counselor, one needed only attend 4 8-hour seminars. You did not need a college degree, life experience, or any sort of screening process. I’ve been horrified by the amount of spiritual abuse that has resulted at the hands of unqualified biblical counselors. In their eyes, any problem comes down to sin, whether depression or sexual assault. I hope this isn’t true of all biblical counseling centers but most programs out there are unaccredited and along the same lines. I haven’t been to the church in years but I continue to hear stories of lives wrecked by the biblical counseling center. When dealing with mental illness, grief, or any sort of problem, we need more than a verse and a pat on the back and we definitely don’t need an accusatory finger, guilt trip, or plain wrong advice.

    • You would think that someone would look at the evidence and say this system needs to stop. Being a Christian or reading your Bible doesn’t qualify you to give advice, any more than putting a fish on my truck qualifies me to fix your house’s electrical systems.

  12. Thanks for this. One thing that I think that we have lost is the interconnectedness between the spirit and the mind. In fact, the word psyche is a derivative of the Greek word for “soul” and therefore, psychology is the study of the soul. We are created as interconnected beings, and mind, body, and spirit are not trifurcated in such a clear cut manner. When the church ignores illnesses of the mind and simply tell people to pray harder or have more faith, we do little to honor the way in which we have been created.

  13. People in the church seem to forget that there are levels of depression. There is a type of depression that can be cured with uplifting sermons or quiet prayer time, or even hanging out with friends. There is a type of depression you go through from time to time that is “normal” in the sense that everyone experiences those same feelings. It comes with the ebb and flow of life.

    However, there is a depression that will physically enable you to get out of bed, clean your house, hang out with friends. It can even keep you from having the energy to call out to God. Everything becomes effort, even if you If you’ve experienced that, you know it. It is an unhealthy place. It is a place that Christians need to empathize with. This is the time when a Christian needs to grab the depressed person and get the to the doctor out of love for them. We need to be doing things only to build each other up! Love God, Love People and Live a Life of Service – that’s the mission of our church. I’m blessed to have a pastor who get’s it when it comes to mental health. It’s what the Bible calls us to do! You make VERY good points here. Loved this blog!

  14. I am a associate pastor of a church but I also work part time as a job coach for mentally disabled people. I work around them everyday and it’s so hard not to tell them just to snap out of it.

    I think your post is a great start at creating dialogue for this but doesn’t give an answer of what the church should do. If the church is not to chalk mental illness up to demonic activity or sin, then how does the church go about approaching people with mental illnesses. I’m not asking with a criticizing spirit. I really want to know because I work in both spectrums and am very interested.

    I led worship at one church where a woman had seizures just about every service and very often she had to be taken to the back to “let it happen”. We prayed over her so much till the pastor started to believe that she may have had been oppressed demonically and she wasn’t willing to “give it up.” She liked the attention he said.

    I’ll be the first to say I don’t know. It’s difficult to say if a mental illness is demonic, sin, or simply a mental issue. Regardless, my question is if the church is missing how to handle these issues, what is your answer for the church. Maybe I missed it in your post.

  15. I’m not a pastor, but as a medical person and someone who’s family is affected by this I can think of a couple things:

    1) Have seminaries make sure that all graduates have at least a basic knowledge of mental illness–not necessarily phd-level stuff, but at least know how to recognize stuff like possible schizophrenia and major depression. At the very least, recognize warning signs of suicide.

    2) Pastors can make more of an effort to refer people with these problems to the best resources (crisis centers, the ER, etc) rather than relying solely on religious organizations or trying to “fix” the problem themselves.

    3) Pastors can do more to destigmatize mental illness. Don’t use folks with mental illness as examples of “sinners” in sermons. Don’t talk about psychiatric medication as if it’s a sign of weakness or taken out of a desire to be sick.

    Many times, people with depression, domestic abuse issues, and a host of other stuff will present to their pastor before their doctor notices anything wrong. More pastors need to recognize when professional help is needed, and make sure that their parishioners don’t feel belittled for seeking it.

  16. Part of the problem is that everyone has been made to look foolish, and it is something that every human being will fight harder than Sin.

    It seems like anyone would rather be cruel than wrong. It is a terrifying thing to say “I don’t know.” The implied, “My knowledge and resources are insufficient.”

    Anyone would much rather say “*You* are the problem,” than “I’m not enough.”
    Which, in Religious circles, is especially disappointing, since it’s kind of a part of our DNA that we’re not enough– that we need a savior, and an entire body.

    We aren’t designed to live with just Jesus even in a strictly religious/spiritual sense.

  17. I battle with depression/melancholy issues. Have since childhood. I can go a long time without going into one of my funks, and then boom. I have been “prayed” over and had “devils” cast out of me to rid it out of me. Somehow lacked faith and hence allowed them to return. Churches are so clueless about these issues. Not everything is a demon. For example, situational depression, and links discovered between diet and depression.

  18. Brian Hathaway once remarked that spiritual authority has become a much sought after commodity in some churches. Some pastors may have to come under psychological scrutiny for having too much of a taste for authority. Likewise, some of the Christian crowd may need psychoanalysis for having such a need to be mass-hypnotized and being lorded over by ‘spiritual experts’ (see 2 Corinthians).

    We rather need a lot of good responsible theology and pastors – though humble and perhaps struggling to cope financially and not always with ‘successful’ churches – but well thought, well read, well equipped, to minister to the needs of a complex humanity.
    We need pastors who would sometimes be proud of the way their psychologically struggling members are casting themselves on God’s grace, pastors who would also ask for prayer.

    Spirit-filled, of course, but are science and medicine outside of the Spirit’s sphere? Did not Jesus Himself take his disciples aside for a well deserved break?

  19. Oh… the books I could write on this subject. This stigma is so prevalent in church circles and especially among preachers. Sadly, so many marriages are destroyed by the effects of psychosis. One of my manuals says that 90% of marriages fail when a spouse has a manic episode.
    If the church were way more prepared and encouraging people to seek refuge and help from believers, I’m sure we could save more lives and families. But mental health intervention is messy and preachers are so afraid of lawsuits that they run away from their purpose for being the church. As Kenneth Hagin used to say; “…what people aren’t up on, they’re down on…”
    Some people need treatment. Yes, more often that treatment includes medicine, nowadays. But often meds are only part of the best restoration plans.
    Often, the untreated illness brings about a behavior pattern that strains or destroys the very relationships that an ill person needs most in getting well. Those who do stay committed to an ill person’s recovery may have to do some very “tough love” which fickle believers and casual acquaintances often either judge as unchristlike or even worse, they might undermine and render ineffective.
    I won’t say all secrecy is wrong. The fragile days of early treatment involve a confused person having to trust others in a way most of us would not be willing to do. Unsolicited and ignorant drive-by commentators can be devastating and lead to death. REAL DEATH! When a patient is stable enough and a family is restored enough, there is a healthy time for public advocacy, but it’s okay to advise confidentiality in the early treatment period.

  20. This is one of the main topics I write about on my blog. I’m a psychology major and, while I advocate holistic treatment (improved nutrition, increased physical activity, spiritual involvement) as a first choice measure, or combined treatment element, in addressing obesity, depression and generalized mood disorders, I in no way discredit the value or appropriateness of pharmaceutical treatments in many cases. I wrote a post titled, “Anxiety and the Bible” that explains anxiety disorder basics and breaks down what the Bible says about anxiety – however, I made sure to close with Matthew 7:1 (Judge not, that you be not judged). I liked what you said: “…just because we know we’re over-medicated, that doesn’t mean none of us are broken”; while pharmaceutical treatments aren’t appropriate for everyone, they are necessary in certain cases. Religion can play an important role in the prognosis of mental illness. A 2012 review of 444 studies found that 60% of the reports found less depression/faster recovery in patients who were spiritual/religious than those who were not. However, it’s important to note that religion can play a negative role, as well – in the majority of cases where the prognosis got worse (for spiritual/religious patients) the judgmental/non-supportive views of their religious community played a part. (I feel like I’m typing a ton, so I’m gonna wrap this up! lol) If you want to read more, I have a lot of information under my “Spirituality” category over on my blog :) Really liked this post!

  21. There is a great book on this–also as far as I know, the only theological book on this–called Darkness Is My Only Companion, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. I wrote on it too, but my book isn’t published yet. :)


  22. “Well what if someone’s mind is getting in the way of their spirit? Can we just admit that we have other problems that we actually suffer from?”…..Thank you. I struggle with mental illness–we haven’t it pinned down yet, major depression, bipolar 2, adhd? I’m on an antidepressant but we haven’t found one that works for me yet. And it really makes life hard. It’s hard for me to function. I get along okay, I’m even pretty successful from the outside, but everything is so much harder for me than it should be. This includes my spiritual life. And I suffer so much guilt; not only over, sometimes, literally not having the ability to seek God, but feeling like my illness is my fault. I try so hard at everything, and I fail, and then I come to the people who should love me most, and they tell me that I just need more Jesus. Why can’t they pray with me for me to be healed? Like you said, if I came to them and told them I had some horrible illness they would. But instead they blame me and it hurts. So thank you for this post.

  23. I was a brand new Christian who was pregnant, and had terrible terrible hyperemesis, then a premmie baby, when i finally exhausted made it back to church there was a whole series (for around 6 weeks) with “guest pastors” greatly respected, who just banged on and on about ‘faith can heal you’. ‘faith can heal you’ to lady in front of me with a weakened and smaller leg from child hood polio, and faith can heal you from my stress induced postnatal depression. 6 months my poor little daughter had a detached non smiling mom because i thought that it was my lack of faith in God that was my problem, not just temporarily low serotonin levels. Lucky for me a friend (who happened to be LDS) said “hey you need medication, just stop if you dont like it”. And hey it worked fast, with in days. I stopped after a year. and havn’t looked back. But boy it shook my faith in church and almost in God.
    Now i advocate strongly for medication as a complement to other stratergies in a persons life. sometimes our bodies(which include the glands our brains people) just get a bit worn out. I don’t know why mental illness so often gets confused with negative thought processes-my thinking was fine, my body was not.

  24. Yes, I have had experience. After experiencing a 7.9 earthquake in the Philippines and returning to the States and still feeling earthquakes when there weren’t any, I sought counsel from a few different counselors at church. The flashbacks were interrupting my life and I was also dealing with sleep deprivation because of having a newborn waking up 4X p/night. The counselors told me things like “perfect love casts out fear.” I needed to pray more. I was told to list a bunch off people in my life that I needed to sever spiritual ties with. I needed to be in God’s word more.

    What I really needed was a about a week of good sleep, someone to make me a meal, and listen to me cry. Eventually my mom said that the church counseling wasn’t working and urged me to see a Christian psychologist. I did, and was diagnosed with PTSD. I thought the PTSD was because of the earthquake, when in reality, the earthquake triggered stuffed child abuse issues. Once he heard my child abuse story, PTSD symptoms subsided. It’s an amazing gift to be heard and validated. I’ve heard Christians say that psychology is from the devil. I disagree. My therapy got me to a place where I could serve and worship God again.