Spiritualizing Mental Illness: The Peril of Reductionist Thinking in the Church

On October 1, 2015, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, killing eight students and an assistant professor. Following the incident, President Obama mourned that our sincerest sympathies cannot change the reality that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough” when it comes to preventing such massacres in the future. He continued, regarding the perpetrator, “Anybody who does this [shooting] has a sickness in their minds, regardless of what they think their motivations may be [1].”

The President’s verbiage, though intended to galvanize the country’s legislature into enacting stricter gun control laws, amplified the controversial questions surrounding the treatment of mental illness in the United States. The “sickness” that may have motivated this man to murder innocent people not only underlines the criticality of more effective legislative protective measures, but also reinforces the need to care for people like him in a way that seeks to prevent the explosive behaviors we see so routinely on the news.

Serving as a backdrop to this act of violence, the designation of the gunman as having a “sickness” draws attention to the ease with which people can quickly associate the mentally ill with antisocial and malicious behavior. This particular stigmatization of mental illness often lends itself to a myopic diagnosis of what causes gun violence, which in turn perpetuates the stigma in a destructive cycle.

The more harmful effects of this stigma are, however, repudiated when considering that mental illness does not ipso facto place a person at a greater risk for committing violence. Indeed, the means of successfully addressing the issue of mass shootings is complex and goes beyond simply improving mental healthcare, though that is critically important. The authors of a 2015 study investigating the factors at play in U.S. mass shootings maintained that we must “[recognize] that gun crimes, mental illnesses, social networks, and gun access issues are complexly interrelated, and not reducible to simple cause and effect [2].” What Roseburg, Charleston, Newtown, Columbine, and countless others demonstrate is not the ill-advised assumption that mental illness causes gun violence. Rather, events like these reiterate a concept so plain it seems to go without saying: Gun violence is complex. 

But a concept so easily acknowledged is not always easily practiced. Without even recognizing it, one can automatically dismiss another mass shooting as the consequence of a deranged psychology (“He killed ten people because he’s crazy”), when in reality a multitude of cognitive, social, political, and other factors may have contributed to the occurrence of the event. On the other hand, one who is religiously inclined might attribute the cause to sin (“We live in a fallen world where acts like these are to be expected”) or free will (“He killed because he chose to rebel against God”). Regardless of (non)religious underpinnings, the tendency to reduce gun violence to “nothing more than or y” is widespread.

Such reductionist thinking is particularly dangerous when it transcends the issue of gun violence and encroaches upon the overlapping terrain of mental illness (or, to use a more palatable and all-encompassing term, mental unwellness) itself. In fact, the Church’s perpetuation of a reductionist view of mental unwellness has hurtful and far-reaching consequences for those who struggle in this area, since many people perceive and trust the Church to be a place of healing. In the aftermath of any national moral disaster, new wounds are created and old ones are reopened, and questions of the Ultimate once again find themselves at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Almost instinctively, when secular society struggles to offer answers or comfort in the wake of such tragedies, people turn to the Church. (For instance, during the week of Roseburg, a candlelight vigil was held in the city park and multiple community churches were opened to the public for prayer and pastoral counseling.)

The Church should be commended for continually being available in instances such as these. But it must also be careful in what it actually offers to those who are suffering. All too frequently, the Church’s noble intentions are compromised by its propensity to over-spiritualize mental unwellness, thereby minimizing both its origin and its treatment.

As an example, some influential churches still hold that certain conditions such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia are a result of demonic possession. The Christian has, intentionally or unknowingly, allowed the devil a foothold in her life, which now manifests in psychological disturbances. She is told that her panic attacks may be the result of “generational sin,” or “soul ties with an unbeliever,” or past participation in occult activities. She undergoes deliverance prayers and exorcisms in an attempt to resolve the underlying “sin” issue that is supposedly causing the mental health issue. In many cases, however, the Christian continues to suffer even after she has seen very “gifted” deliverance pastors. The Christian can then be led to wonder whether she has a demon that cannot be exorcised, whether the deliverance “failed,” or whether there is any hope left for healing if deliverance and healing prayer didn’t “work,” thereby leading to a greater sense of helplessness.

The mentally unwell Christian is also repeatedly told to “have more faith,” as if she had not already believed with as much faith as she can. Though well-meaning, those who tell their suffering peers to just “pray harder” that God will heal them often imply that the sufferer is not faithful enough. Yet it is not uncommon for chronic mental unwellness to befall the most faithful of believers. A 2013 study found that more American pastors suffer from anxiety and depression than the general population [3]. It is a little known fact that even Mother Teresa, considered by many to be a paragon of virtue, suffered in silence from a dark depression for much of her life.

These examples, among many, shed light on the idea that perhaps mental unwellness cannot be overcome by simply believing or trying harder. Many mentally unwell but faithful Christians have done the most they can to seek healing in spiritual contexts. The journalist Philip Yancey, who has written extensively on prayer and suffering, reflects, “I have a file drawer filled with letters from earnest Christians who pray… who seek anointing with oil and follow every biblical admonition, and yet who find no relief from their suffering, no reward from their faith [4].” Scripture often portrays healing in Jesus’ time as a matter of faith (Mark 5:34, Mark 10:52), but one cannot deny the experiential reality, at least today, that healing is not always just a faith issue. Many times the mentally unwell Christian, like Job, offers as much faith as she can muster, and repeated admonitions from peers are no longer edifying.

This is not to say, however, that mental unwellness lacks a spiritual component; in fact, dealing with mental unwellness can be an extraordinarily spiritual endeavor, and religiosity and faith-building practices such as prayer and meditation can empower the sufferer towards recovery or at least a better ability to cope with her challenges [5].  It is rather the notion propagated by the Church that mental unwellness is always solely or predominately a spiritual issue that jeopardizes its knowledge and treatment of what in reality is often a complex and multifaceted problem. To treat any form of serious psychological condition as owing to a singular habit, upbringing, gene, or chemical imbalance would be readily dismissed by the medical community, which is increasingly validating the multidisciplinary biopsychosocial model of understanding human conditions (which states that the interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors determines human functioning within the context of illness). Similarly, to reduce mental unwellness to a singular spiritual defect such as lack of faith, a lazy prayer life, or any other among a host of other potential problems is to not take seriously the complexity of the sufferer’s situation.

When the Church pinpoints mental unwellness as spiritual unwellness, it can only see spiritual solutions. If mental unwellness is merely a permutation of sin or demon possession, then the solution lies in increased spiritual practices – faith, prayer, evocation of Scripture, exorcisms, or deliverance. But when healing continues to eludes the sufferer, what then? Has God abandoned her? Or is it simply God’s way of saying “not now”? “I have a plan for you”? “Your mental illness is part of my plan”? Such assumptions are both insensitive and unjustifiable.

Even so, the Church always has a safety net in the event that spiritual solutions backfire. It can continue to maintain that the problem is still spiritual in nature, but simply revise its position by adding that because of God’s infinite wisdom, we cannot understand why the sufferer continues to struggle or how her mental illness fits into God’s redemptive plan for humanity. The most we can do is continue to trust in God’s purpose and timing.

Although this may be a satisfactory intellectual solution for some (particularly for those who are not suffering), it often provides scant emotional comfort for one who is experiencing unbearable pain. When spiritual efforts do not resolve the issue, the Church no longer has anything to offer the sufferer apart from trite platitudes, albeit with good intentions. This is the danger of reductionist thinking. A Church that makes those who need help feel even more helpless is compromising its legitimacy as a place of hope and healing, a place where God can be experienced and received. A Church that fails to understand or properly care for one who is mentally unwell is a Church that communicates to the world that there are other, better avenues for help and healing. (Could it be that many who are angry with God first become disillusioned with the Church’s spiritual formulations?)

What, then, can the Church do? A simple step forward is for it to be humble enough to admit, borrowing the words of the President, when its “thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Though well-meaning, the Church must also be willing to acknowledge when its nearsightedness is preventing it from considering how one might be healed apart from traditional “Church” methodologies. Fortunately, the understanding that we cannot assume the existence of a spiritual panacea provides a much needed piece of the puzzle. By accepting this idea, Christians can begin to view the suffering of their peers in a less grossly simplistic manner and, consequently, develop the sophistication and tenderness required to help the troubled who turn to the Church for mental or emotional support.

The Church is an indispensable resource for people suffering with mental unwellness, and my intention here is not to discredit its role in this arena. Quite the opposite. It is precisely because the Church is such a powerful resource that I urge its members to steward its responsibility in a better way. Even today, the Church often continues to over-spiritualize mental unwellness to the detriment of those who suffer. Instead of turning mental unwellness into an exclusively spiritual matter, the Church should seek to establish and encourage spiritual treatment strategies (prayer/meditation, worship, Scripture, small group communities) but also be open to “secular” ones – cognitive-behavioral or other types of counseling, mindfulness, and medication, if needed.

In being willing to explore “secular” treatment modalities while offering the spiritual guidance that it is best equipped to do, the Church can begin to foster an even more dynamic and effective approach to the treatment of mental unwellness. Perhaps such integration would even enable the Church to work with the broader community to promote a progressive way of understanding people not exclusively within a biopsychosocial or spiritual framework, but within a biopsychosocio-spiritual one. The faith of many religions and philosophies posit that we are, by our most intrinsic nature, spiritual beings. But while we inhabit this world of brick and mortar in which our minds are, for better or worse, encapsulated within the neuronal networks of our brains, we must recognize that healing is only true if it heals the person in his or her entirety. While we possess these bodies, we are in fact biopsychosocio-spiritual beings, and this is the view that should guide the Church’s crucial role in the care of its most vulnerable.

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/01/statement-president-shootings-umpqua-community-college-roseburg-oregon

[2] Authored by Drs. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish in the American Journal of Public Health, entitled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/

[3] Authored by Proeschold-Bell et al. in the Journal of Primary Prevention, entitled “Using Effort-Reward Imbalance Theory to Understand High Rates of Depression and Anxiety Among Clergy”: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10935-013-0321-4

[4] Yancey, Philip, “Reaching for the Invisible God”, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000, pg. 51.

[5] Dew et al. reviewed 115 published articles examining relationships between religion/spirituality and certain mental conditions and discovered that “ninety-two percent of articles reviewed found at least one significant relationship between religiousness and better mental health”. Their review can be found in Child Psychiatry & Human Development: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18219572

One thought on “Spiritualizing Mental Illness: The Peril of Reductionist Thinking in the Church

  1. Howard, you raise some excellent points that have no easy answers. As a pastor who served two decades while battling bipolar disorder, I have seen the best and the worst the church has to offer people with troubled minds. My mission now is to share the hope of Christ with people who may be angry at or feel abandoned by God, and shatter stigma within the church and beyond by sharing stories, my own and others.

    Thanks for addressing the essential topic.


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