Myths Some Christians Believe About Mental Illness
In the past, no one in the church really talked about mental illness. Those who suffered with mental health issues felt isolated and ashamed of their condition. They felt weak and that there was something spiritually wrong with them, so they thought they needed to hide in a state of hopelessness.
Although the church has made some strides in acknowledging mental illness and supporting those who struggle with it, there are still many misconceptions and myths surrounding this condition. Society itself tends to stigmatize people with mental illness and fears them, contributing to the problem.
Mental illness is not common: Mental illness is actually much more pervasive than people believe. Estimates say that either one in four or one in five people in the general population will experience a mental illness at some time in their lives. A Lifeway research study revealed that 59 percent of pastors have counseled one or more people who were diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
Mental illness is a spiritual problem: Some Christians think that disorders such as depression occur because the mentally ill person lacks faith or is spiritually weak, do not study their Bible, or do not pray enough. If the person would just make the effort, they would “snap out of it” and “get over it.” People with mental illness are told that they need to have faith and pray about it. Mental illness is also considered to be a sign of unrepented sin.
In actuality, mental illness is also a physical condition that can be helped by medication. There is still a lot that scientists do not know about mental illness, but it is known that some disorders are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Researchers are looking into genetic factors and weak connections in the brain among other things as possible causes of mental illness. Other people may suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder because of traumatic events in their lives.
Some people view mental illness as demonic possession. Demonic possession is real, but it is a separate issue with its own unique challenges.
People with mental illness are not safe: Most mentally ill people are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, sensationalized crime stories are in the media every day that depict them as depraved criminals and murders. The Institute of Medicine states that the overall rates of violence perpetrated by mentally ill people are small, but exaggerated in people’s minds.
Mentally ill people are difficult to relate to and unpredictable: Many people raise stable families, have an active social life, and work in career jobs while living with mental illness. They may have periods of unpredictable behavior while they are unwell, but they can be managed with family support and at times, medical interventions, therapy, and/or an adjustment in their medications.
People with mental illness should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to reliability and trustworthiness. They can keep appointments, relate well to others, and be dependable. Some may need our understanding and grace as they struggle with their mental health issues. Some people may have more trouble relating to other people than others.
Psychiatry is evil: According to Dr. Grant Mullen, a Christian author and medical doctor who treats mental illness, Christians have viewed psychiatry as a “tool of darkness” in the past. Psychiatrists (and medical doctors in some cases) are considered to be pawns in the hands of drug-pushing pharmaceutical companies. Sadly, this myth can still prevent people from getting help. In reality, many psychiatrists do genuinely care about their patients and seek to provide them with the best treatment.
Mentally ill people should not take medication: Some Christians feel that taking medication to treat mental disorders equates a lack of faith that God will heal their mentally illness. There are physical causes for mental illness that benefit from medication the same way has eye glasses help someone with vision problems or hearing aids assist the hard of hearing.
People with mental illness do not want to talk about it: Some people may be open about their condition while others keep things to themselves.
Most mentally ill people are on welfare, disability, or are homeless: Many people with mental illness attend college with us, work alongside of us, and live in our neighbourhoods. Some of them long to sit in church with us and feel fully accepted.
What we Christians can do
Love your mentally ill neighbour: “Love our neighbour as yourself,” Jesus said (Mark 12:31), and that includes people with mental illness. Accept them as they are and encourage them. We should let them know that we are praying for them. They need our love and less advice. We should accept that people with mental illness with have symptoms that are beyond their control such as intense anxiety or severe depression.
Platitudes such as “just trust God,” “you should pray more,” and “things will get better” do not help. Instead, we should acknowledge that their illness is real, and genuinely remind them that God loves them and will take care of them.
Learn about mental illness: When we learn about mental illness, it is less scary for us. We can be more tolerant and loving. We should also know about community resources and mental health services in our area.
Be willing to talk about it: Myths and stigma are perpetuated by our silence on the topic. Mental illness should be acknowledged in our churches from time to time, yet nearly half of pastors rarely or never talk about it. People who struggle with mental illness should feel acknowledged, accepted, and loved.
They also need encouragement, and above all, hope for the future. Sadly, the Lifeway survey revealed that only 53 percent of people with an acute mental illness said that their church was supportive. Some (18 percent) broke ties with the church because of bad experiences there.
Some churches offer workshops about mental illness. Some also offer support groups where people with similar struggles can share and help each other.
© 2015 Carola Finch