The Mental Illness Boogey Man
JANUARY 11, 2021
We religious folks have some… let’s call them interesting, ideas about mental health.
You get a boo-boo, you put a band-aid on it. You get chest pains, you’re yelling at Martha to call the 911. Yet, if you have a mental condition, you’re told to just trust God. No docs, no medicine, no books on tape. Which leads to a lot of silent suffering and frustration with God.
I truly am sympathetic to the pitfalls of the religious system many of us grew up in. I get the black-and-white, too literal, ‘spirit over body’ mindset these ideas come from. As well as why they’re so durn hard to rid ourselves of. So, that means I’m aware that some of you still have your doubts about what I’ve said so far. Fair enough. Let’s discuss.
Why is it Wrong?
There’s an actual heresy mixed up in the belief that mental illness is a spiritual, not physical, issue. Gnosticism is a complex, weird belief system, condemned centuries ago. But, the aspect of that heresy I’m thinking of is where we see the physical as evil, and the spiritual as good. This isn’t what the bible teaches.
Let’s say we get a goiter the size of a baseball on our neck. We think, ‘oh, something’s wrong with my body, I should see a person who deals with physical things for a living.’ We see our body, rightly, as a physical thing, with physical needs, and we treat it that way. But, we think of our thoughts as part of our ‘real’ selves. The so-called spiritual side of us that rides around in this evil, lemon of a flesh-car.
So, it doesn’t matter how many times we hear about things like chemical imbalances, genetic abnormalities, or other physical causes of mental illness. We often can’t get past the idea that anything brain-related is purely spiritual, and can only be dealt with by God (which usually ends up meaning untrained pastors, religious life coaches, our really holy friend Jennifer, and demon caster-outers.)
Because we think of the physical world as evil, we expect goiters and heart attacks. But, because we equate our minds/thoughts with the spiritual world (which we think of as purely good), any suffering there must be a test, or, worse, a punishment.
Why do we Still Believe it?
You might wonder why a hurtful, neglectful, and often unloving way of handling an entire group of hurting people hasn’t gone the way of the Dodo. Well, part of it is the cultural stigma associated with mental health issues. Everything from our politics to our entertainment stinks of our misunderstanding and fear of mental issues.
But I think the biggest reason it doesn’t change in the Church is that we believe our thinking is the same as God’s thinking. Once we connect our personal opinions to our religious beliefs, good luck getting us to see things differently. It feels like we’re committing a sin if we even think about changing beliefs we’ve wrongly connected to our faith.
What Can We Do?
First, talk about it. Normalize it.
Purveyor of decorative crosses and Andy Griffith-themed bible studies, LifeWay, did a study that said about 66% of pastors mention mental illness once a year or not at all. Compare that to how often you hear about, I don’t know, smoking, short skirts, politics, drugs, porn, or social media addiction.
We talk about suffering, death, illness, loss, and all other kinds of human maladies in order to give comfort to our congregations. So, considering about 1 in 4 (or roughly 58 million) people, just in the U.S., experience some sort of mental health disorder a year, it seems like a pretty important thing to also talk about (Once we educate ourselves, that is). Which brings me to my final point.
We’re Not Everything Experts
For some reason, pastors (and I was one, so I speak from shameful experience) think of ourselves as a jack-of-all-trades. As if, by virtue of being ordained, we have absorbed the full knowledge and wisdom necessary to address any and all issues. Whether they be financial, relational, or in this case, mental health counseling, we see ourselves, and are unfortunately seen as, the bestest, most smartest counselors ever.
But, none of us, even pastors, are everything experts.
There’s a really good chance going to hurt someone by dispensing naïve advice. (In the same way as if you were trying to perform, let’s say… leg surgery.) So another thing we can do is point those in need towards professionals.
General goodwill and empathy are great. Pray with them. Give them biblical words of comfort. But then direct them to a mental health professional who specializes in the issues they’re dealing with.
The truth is, there aren’t spiritual parts and physical parts. Our bodies are eternal. This Earth is eternal. We aren’t just Casper’s riding around in these bone suits, waiting to be freed. All of who we are is who we will be… just eventually without the stretch marks and receding hair lines. Also, without the death, pain, or mental illness.