December 14, 2019

iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (1)

Note from CM: Ten years ago, Michael re-ran a series about Christians and mental illness that he originally wrote in 2005. For the next few days this week, I will re-post edited versions of those pieces. Today, we read Michael’s introduction and some of the questions he will raise.

• • •

Several times a week, I have to read folders containing psychological evaluations of prospective students. They are often quite daunting and detailed. The stories range from ordinary to nightmarish and disturbing. I must read and review the psychiatric evaluations and counseling histories of all students who are seeking admission to our school. After reading, I make a recommendation as to their appropriateness for us. In some cases, I do an additional interview, and make an evaluation based on the interview and the information.

I’ve ministered with young people and adults long enough to have seen a lot of mental illness–from my father’s depression to the suicides of co-workers and young people to the many episodes of emotional and mental illness I have encountered in church and community. I’ve visited hospitals for the mentally ill, counseled families and individuals dealing with the mental illness of a family member and helped individuals decide to seek help for everything from depression to delusions of being God.

For many years, the majority of my work week was counseling individuals at our school. In these hours of counseling, I saw all kinds of human emotional brokenness, much of it related to what we commonly call mental or emotional illness. I continue to deal with people who have sought psychiatric and psychological help, and many of our students are on psychiatric medications.

As a Christian, a minister and a servant, I am compelled to look at the subject of mental illness and make some important decisions. While the subject is tossed around without much seriousness, it is a matter of immense human pain and suffering. It is a dimension of life that Christians cannot pretend is not present and all around them on any Sunday or Monday.

Is there such a thing as mental illness? Many Christians are suspicious of the psychological worldview that diagnoses human behavior in terms of “illness” and “disorders.” Can Christians have anything to do with a way of looking at human beings that is rooted in an atheistic worldview? Is the use of medication ethical and permissible for Christians? Can we accept descriptions and diagnostic terminology rooted in psychology rather than scripture?

Is mental illness a manifestation of spiritual forces (demons) or the result of personal sin? Many Christians have embraced models of dealing with human behavior that respond to what we call mental illness with scripture-based behavior modification, scripture memory, repentance and spiritual warfare, even exorcism. Is it ethical to seek to “cure” mental illness?

Is there mental illness in the Bible? Did Jesus encounter the mentally ill? Where in the Bible can we see mental illness? Were Saul, Jeremiah and Ezekiel mentally ill? How would Jesus or Paul respond to a mentally/emotionally ill person?

What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill? How should they be viewed and included in the Christian community? Should the mentally ill be allowed to be part of the ministries of the church? What about their experience of God? Is it valid, or a manifestation of their mental illness?

What does the Gospel say to the mentally ill? What does it say to all human beings about the mentally ill? What does their presence among us tell us about ourselves? How is mental illness related to “true humanity?”

These are the questions we will address in these posts.

Comments

  1. “How would Jesus or Paul respond to a mentally/emotionally ill person?”

    “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

    (from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew 9:36)

    Other than ‘confused’, the link Biblehub has many other descriptors for these objects of Our Lord’s compassion:
    ‘distressed’, ‘downcast’, ‘wearied’, ‘dispirited’, ‘worried’, ‘worn-out’, ‘troubled’, ‘helpless’, ‘dejected’,
    ‘bewildered’. . . . .

    Our Lord took their suffering seriously.

    These days, we all will have problems sooner or later. Life is tough on people. So if, no, WHEN it happens to you or someone you care about, if the symptom persists and gets stronger, is good to see a PHYSICIAN for advice.
    The invisible suffering of emotional, mental pain needs to be treated, sometimes with medications, almost always with some counseling or therapy for a time. Getting help is the responsible thing to do.

  2. Iain Lovejoy says

    I don’t see why some Christians should treat mental illness any differently to physical illness, it only being a different bit of is that is broken. The Christians who so distrust psychiatry are quite happy to pop all the pills their doctor prescribes when they have a stomach complaint, for example.
    Illness, suffering and death may be the result of us living in a bit of a broken world, but that doesn’t mean getting the flu is a personal moral failing.
    I am sure that bad mental and spiritual habits can make you vulnerable to mental illness in the same way as bad physical habits can make you vulnerable to spiritual illness, but that doesn’t equate mental illness with sin. Not everyone who gets lung cancer is a smoker, nor can lung cancer be cured by stopping smoking.
    I wonder if the strands of Christianity so keen to blame the mentally ill for their own illness are the same “prosperity gospel” crowd that blame the poor for their poverty and credit their own piety for the health and prosperity they have the good luck to have. If mental illness is the fault of the sin of the sufferer I who am sinless have neither anything to fear nor any obligation to offer sympathy or help.

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      Correction: “in the same way as bad physical habits can make you vulnerable to spiritual illness” should read “in the same way as bad physical habits can make you vulnerable to *physical* illness”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The problem with “Spiritual” is these days it carries all sorts of Woo-Woo baggage to the point that “Spiritual(TM)” can mean “NOT Real”.

    • “The Christians who so distrust psychiatry are quite happy to pop all the pills their doctor prescribes when they have a stomach complaint, for example.”

      Because those pills are for *physical* problems. *Emotional and relational* problems, OTOH, are “spiritual” and therefore can be wholly solved through faith and obedience and proper application of Bible verses. So goes their thinking…

      • Which is funny because the distinction between physical problems and spiritual problems is one that would not have been at all obvious to the ancients. Jesus’ disciples assumed that the “man blind from birth” (in gJohn 9) was a product of sin, either his or his parent’s.

    • Keep in mind that wealthier people are less likely to suffer from mental illness than the poor. They are also more likely to be able to afford eating healthily, or even to have access to healthy foods, to be able to afford things like health clubs, or even to live in neighborhoods where it is safe to take a stroll or run at night (or during the day!), to be able to afford regular visits to the doctor for mental health screenings (among other things).

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And since they have a smaller chance of suffering from it, they normally don’t suffer from it, so they can afford to claim it doesn’t really exist. Tsk. Tsk.

        And it all comes down to “If you were Just Like MEEEEEEEEEE, you wouldn’t have a problem, would you?”

        • And the alternative?
          “Since you are not like me, and you need… I am bound to be your slave.”

          ?????????????

          Catch 22, in the land, Headless?

      • “Keep in mind that wealthier people are less likely to suffer from mental illness than the poor. ”

        I wonder which is the cause and which is the effect. Does wealth prevent the mental illness or does mental illness prevent the wealth?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Probably both.
          Unlike legal and theological axioms, synergistic natural systems do NOT break down cleanly.

      • How do we know that wealthier people are less likely to suffer from mental illness than the poor? They will certainly have a wider, more comfortable safety net, but less?

        It is sad that eating healthy does cost considerably more than eating crap.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      If mental illness is the fault of the sin of the sufferer I who am sinless have neither anything to fear nor any obligation to offer sympathy or help.

      i.e. “I THANK THEE, LOOOOOOOOOOOORD, THAT I AM NOTHING LIKE THAT FILTHY CRAZY GUY OVER THERE…”

    • Ian, in my experience, yes.

  3. senecagriggs says

    Here’s the first thing: ALL meds have side effects – so it comes down to; which side effects can you live with and which side effects can’t you live with. There is always a trade off.

    Secondly; psych meds primarily treat symptoms, not causes.

    Thirdly, I personally think we tend to over-medicate in the USA but that’s just my opinion.

    Finally, if you can get by without meds – that’s the best path. – my opinion

    • “psych meds primarily treat symptoms, not causes.”

      What about brain-chemistry induced depression? Or schizophrenia?

      • senecagriggs says

        Generally, psych meds are reducing the symptoms but a true schizophrenic will continue to struggle once the meds are stopped. [ One of the problems with schizophrenics; they resist taking psych meds.]

        • Noboby said schizophrenia wasn’t chronic. People with renal failure need lifetime dialysis; people with schizophrenia typically need a lifetime of medication.

    • Hello Senecagriggs,

      I once had a fairly severe bout of post-partum depression. It was a result of the rapid change in hormonal balances that sometimes happens after childbirth and delivery . . . . . it has been experienced by many women, and it can range from mildly ‘down’ to almost being paralyzed by the severity of the depression.

      So I took Valium for a time and so a counselor (psychiatric social-worker). And after months of misery and fearfulness, I recovered myself from that dark place no one wants to journey in.

      So I know. You CAN have physically-related symptoms and they can be quite severe.

      I wished in those long-ago days I had been taken more seriously, but I saw myself that it was an ‘invisible’ suffering and attitudes towards it seemed casual: ‘it’s only post-partum depression’ or ‘if we treat this as not very serious, she’ll get over it’ . . . I honestly wished that there had been a better treatment in those days, sure.

      Recurrences? none
      Memories? enough of the pain of it to have great compassion for those who suffer depression, which in my opinion is a greater kind of suffering than any physical pain

      people need help with this . . . sometimes that requires medication . . . . it almost always requires some form of therapist support as it is a frightening thing to ‘try’ to cope with, yes

  4. If somewhere between 20 and 30% of the American population suffers from anxiety/depression disorder, as statistics indicate, you can bet that a large segment of Christians similarly suffer, including clergy and lay leaders in the church.

    • From reading some of the things he posted on this blog, a reader could easily come away with the impression that Michael Spencer himself struggled with anxiety/depression.

      • senecagriggs says

        I think he did.

        I’ve assessed myself as struggling with “low-grade” depression.

        • All my life I’ve struggled with depression, despite seeing counselors for decades, and trying the medication route as well.

      • thatotherjean says

        If you access the archives, you’ll find that Michael was pretty open (within the limits of recognizing that some of his peers and bosses read his blog) about sometimes being depressed.

    • senecagriggs says

      “If somewhere between 20 and 30% of the American population suffers from anxiety/depression disorder, as statistics indicate, you can bet that a large segment of Christians similarly suffer, including clergy and lay leaders in the church.”

      Absolutely agree with you Robert F.

      • In which case there is no live question of excluding people with mental illness from important leadership roles in the church. You would decimate clergy and lay leadership if you were to succeed.

        • senecagriggs says

          I’ve known a significant number of depressed/anxious Evangelical pastors over the years.

          Charles Spurgeon suffered significantly the last years of his life.

          I suspect the majority of Catholic Priest struggle with depression

  5. senecagriggs says

    RE: the field of psychology

    Here is the observation of lesbian commentator Camille Paglia that “you are not allowed to ask questions about the childhood of gay people anymore … the entire psychology establishment has shut itself down … everything is political now.” Doyle believes psychology is being corrupted by “junk science” and “political correctness.”

    • Read a lot Paglia, do you? Or did you find this quote somewhere already cherry-picked by a third party for you to use to politicize discussions about mental illness?

      And who is Doyle? The third party cherry-picker?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Note that out of all the possible adjectives to use regarding Camille Paglia, Seneca uses LESBIAN.

      Pelvic Issues (Pavlov’s dog whistle about HOMOSEXUALITY) strike again.

  6. senecagriggs says

    The professional field of psych is HIGHLY politicized Robert F. Surely you know that.

    You should also know that Paglia has been a counter voice for some years; you don’t have to “cherry pick” quotes.

    • So do read a lot of Paglia?

      Who is Doyle?

    • And “Christian psychology” isn’t? Read Warren Throckmorton’s blog posts about the American Association of Christian Counselors.

      • senecagriggs says

        Eeyore, you make a choice. It’s what we all do. Throckmorton has his narrative/bias – like we all do

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Or all the horror stories on Spiritual Abuse blogs regarding “Nouthetic Counseling” or “Biblical Counseling”.

        My writing partner (the burned-out preacher) describes it as “Beat Them Over The Head With Your Heaviest Bible Until They Give Up”.

  7. “Voice of the Voiceless (VOV)… advocates for “the rights of former homosexuals and encourages faith-based communities to love and support individuals dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction.” VOV’s co-founder and President is Christopher Doyle, an identifying ex-gay now husband, psychotherapist, educator, author…”

    Wouldn’t happen to be *this* Doyle, would it Seneca?

  8. “Psychology is no more a science than the atheistic evolutionary theory upon which it is based. Like theistic evolution, Christian psychology is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency. Though it has become a profitable business, psychotherapy cannot solve anyone’s spiritual problems. At best it can occasionally use human insight to superficially modify behavior. It succeeds or fails for Christians and non-Christians equally because it is only a temporal adjustment`a sort of mental chiropractic. Even experts admit
    it cannot change the human heart”- John MacArthur

    https://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj2a.pdf

    • Are you quoting this with approval?

      • No, I am putting it out there to show that there is this school of thought in certain quarters, which hinders advances in the field. In fact, I personally know of one such case in which this stance was recently taken by a counselor meeting with a family friend.

        • MacArthur takes a “solo scriptura” stance and bases it upon what he calls the “sufficiency of scripture.” He and others in this camp would recommend “biblical counseling,” which is little more than memorizing Bible verses and emphasizing obedience to the instructions they give. I’ve been in churches where this approach was the only accepted one.

          • senecagriggs says

            So have I.
            _______

            As mentioned by me in previous comments; having worked extensively in psych wards my personal observation remains; a lot of the professionals [ doctors and nurses ] were diagnostically “bat-shite” themselves.

            ____________-

            From memory, years ago an individual decided to get himself admitted to a psych ward. He told the people in charge he had hallucinations and on that basis was admitted. After being admitted he never again alleged hallucinations nor did he act in a behaviorally extreme manner.

            RESULTS; the other patients quickly recognized he was mentally health before the professionals did.

            SUMMARY: Don’t confuse IQ with wisdom. They are different things. Doctors generally have high IQ but are not necessarily wise.

            • senecagriggs says

              Bottom line: If you desire wisdom; absorb the teachings of Scripture.

              • I agree as far as that goes. But wisdom does not equal emotional/mental healthiness.

                • senecagriggs says

                  You can certainly be wise and depressed [ See Spurgeon noted earlier.; see King Solomon.]

                  Heck wisdom may exacerbate depression for that matter.

                  • Indeed, having just finished reading Ecclesiastes again, I believe Solomon was a rather depressed individual by his end.

                    David, in his psalms, comes across as borderline manic. “I praise you, praise you, God…slay all my enemies, turn them to dust…I praise you, praise you, God!”

                    • senecagriggs says

                      :Indeed, having just finished reading Ecclesiastes again, I believe Solomon was a rather depressed individual by his end.”

                      I certainly think he was;

              • –> “Bottom line: If you desire wisdom; absorb the teachings of Scripture.”

                Wisdom is one thing; mentally healthy is another. Don’t confuse the two. Also, please don’t regard “if you want to get healthy mentally, read the Bible” as wisdom.

            • “SUMMARY: Don’t confuse IQ with wisdom. They are different things. Doctors generally have high IQ but are not necessarily wise.”

              But doctors are also bound by profession ethics demands and liability concerns so they must be careful about letting a self-professed hallucinatory individual back into society. And that might be the wiser way.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            MacArthur takes a “solo scriptura” stance and bases it upon what he calls the “sufficiency of scripture.”

            The same SCRIPTURE(TM) that has been weaponized over and over and over for One-Upmanship and Beatdowns?

            The same SCRIPTURE(TM) that clearly states that the Demon Locust Plague of Revelation are plainly helicopter gunships piloted by long-haired bearded Hippies?

      • Does he need approval? Seems like a short passage falls under “fair use” to me. What is the quote policy for IM?

  9. I was in the military long ago, on a submarine. I am not a combat veteran. Because of the captain’s stupidity, an event happened that almost killed us all. There were quite a few of us that weren’t the same after that.

    There weren’t many treatments for mental illness in those days. It was more than a decade before I started getting treatment, in the form of a medication. Later, the VA started treatment also. It took some years before the proper type and dosage of medication was found. As Wellington said, “It was a close run thing, a damned close run thing. It was the closest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

    I can tell you, without any shadow of doubt, that the medication I have has kept me stable enough to keep living. Without it, I would have blown myself away years ago. As Wellington said, “It was a close run thing, a damned close run thing. It was the closest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

    I strongly believe that the Holy Spirit, I ways I can’t understand, has worked in myself and others to keep me alive.

    I hope that I’m not arrogant enough to say that what is working for me will work for everyone else.

    For me, the idea that sola scriptura, repeated often enough, would help in any but a very minor way is… mistaken. I won’t use any stronger words.

    Maybe this will help someone.

    • I find this helpful, thanks for sharing. I have my own struggles with mental health – anxiety, which is in a flare up currently – & reading of how others suffer & win is really helpful.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    For me, the idea that sola scriptura, repeated often enough, would help in any but a very minor way is… mistaken. I won’t use any stronger words.

    No different than Taliban-style Islamic Medicine, where you Recite the Koran over the patient while beating the afflicted portion of his body with rods to drive out the Jinn possessing him.

    • thatotherjean says

      Does that also work for driving out the Demons of Messed Up Brain Chemistry? Beating somebody about the head with rods certainly ought to fix SOMETHING.

      • I regularly beat myself about the face and head with hammers or other hard objects. Most acquaintances say it’s working out for me.

  11. Good re-post.

    A few years ago, a person spoke at the Cannon Beach Christian Conference Center on the importance of keeping a healthy “core,” not just spiritual but physical. I liked how he mixed scripture and biblical teaching with science/psychology/mental and physical health. One of the best speakers I’ve heard there.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Sounds like he was taking a Holistic/Monistic approach (in the sense of JM Jones’ “Christian Monism”).

  12. I massively appreciate Michael’s approach, as always. He was years before his time, & all based on lived experience. I’m at the point, in all sorts of ways, where I believe that mental health care is on the same level as physical health care.
    The Bible is not a mental health textbook anymore than it is a surgical handbook – we find these things out by observation, experimentation etc & do what tends towards healing. We’re making big strides in both of these areas, & other flavours of Christianity – Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox etc are all generally very straightforward in recommending mental health professionals.