Over the centuries, people with mental illnesses were locked away in institutions or jails and subjected to the most appalling treatments and conditions. Some were killed out of fear, or (as happened in various countries early in the 20th century including Australia and the USA), were sterilised or euthanized as a means of ‘improving’ the genetic human stock, or to remove them as a burden on our society. Unfortunately this concept arose from the theory of evolution which was taking a strong hold in many countries at the time.
When I was growing up, people never talked about mental illness other than just to make fun of the ‘crazies.’ Television programs and comedians mocked people with mental illness, and many people were so afraid of them that they took care to avoid them and to ostracise them, and to ensure that they were locked away.
As an adult, I’ve been fortunate to have personally known people who have suffered various mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, depression and more. I say fortunate, because it’s given me more of an understanding of the problems and issues with which mentally ill people struggle, and also because I came to value them as individuals, and to admire them for their resolve in living as normally as possible while struggling with their illness.
As someone who has personally suffered depression and panic attacks, I know that mental illness can have a profound and life-changing impact upon us.
Mental Illness in Modern Times
It is really only up until recently in our society, that mental illness has been more openly discussed, and we are becoming more accepting and compassionate towards those with mental illness. Rather than just locking people up and treating them as ‘unfixable’ or even as less than human, we are at last finding some medical treatments and psychotherapy to help them as best as possible.
Within the church though, it is an area that has been slow to change. In some churches there is still the belief that Christians simply do not suffer mental illness, unless they’re committing sin or are lacking in faith and are being punished for their actions, or possibly even as a result of a curse. Other churches run with the concept that the person needs to be freed from demonic possession.
Some still treat the afflicted as if they are carrying an infectious disease and should be avoided, or they arrogantly look down their noses at the poor unfortunate, offering them indifference or condescension instead of solace and compassion.
Those then that suffer from mental illness while they are Christians, are usually forced to hide their condition in shame and embarrassment, as if they are disgusting failures. As a consequence, many Christians who struggle with this, do not seek out help from within their own churches or they feel that they can’t discuss their situation with their brothers and sisters in Christ. Many struggle on alone, for fear of being judged and shunned.
Thankfully this is changing, and more churches are recognising that Christians can suffer a mental illness and it’s not always because they’re sinning, possessed or cursed. More are offering support and help.
What Causes Mental Illness?
In most cases, the causes of mental illness are still unknown. Research suggests that they are caused by physical, biological and environmental factors or a combination of these.
The illness can come about from a disruption in the unborn infant’s brain development or caused by injury at birth. Sometimes neurological pathways in the brain function incorrectly. It can develop through a physical injury to the brain as a result of an accident or it may be caused by chemical imbalances.
It may result from a brain infection, exposure to toxins or lack of good nutrition, particularly in one’s developmental years.
Some families are born with genetic abnormalities that make them more susceptible to mental illness which may be triggered by trauma, abuse or other factors.
Other mental illnesses can be brought on by the use of drugs such as marijuana or long-term alcohol and drug abuse.
Some mental illnesses can be the result of physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse,particularly in childhood, which can impact on the person’s psychological development.
How Can People with Mental Illness be Treated?
A combination of medication and psychotherapy can assist, though the person may still continue to struggle with the illness’s effects throughout their life, particularly its impacts on their personal and social functioning.
While these therapies assist in many cases (but not necessarily cure), not every person is able to find a successful treatment and some people will need to remain in the care of their families or in institutions for the remainder of their life.
There are many families who struggle daily with caring for a loved one with a mental illness. (See our other article – “Good Grief: Mental Illness” in issue 7 of SPAG Magazine.)
Can Christians Have a Mental Illness?
Yes, many Christians do have a mental illness, although few make it known.
As a result of misinformation and lack of compassion within some churches, some Christians come to believe that they’re lacking in faith if they’re not healed, and may be actively discouraged from seeking medical and psychotherapeutic help. Others unsuccessfully try to have the demon removed, or they may simply suffer through it because they’ve been lead to believe that because of their sins, they’re being judged and punished by God. Many suffer in silence because they don’t want to be condemned and shunned by their fellow Christians.
Of course, if a Christian is consciously indulging in a sin, then this is the first thing which they must put forward to God, seeking help and healing, praying for wisdom and forgiveness and with the Holy Spirit’s help, deliberately working at ways of ridding themselves of it. This isn’t always easy to do.
We must understand though, that not all illnesses in the believer, whether mental or physical, are the result of our sin or because we are cursed. By Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection, our former, present and future sins are forgiven. We don’t have to prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness – it is Jesus who was worthy to take our sins for us, so we already are forgiven by our faith in Jesus and God’s promise for the forgiveness of our sins.
Can We Assume that it’s Mostly Due to Sin?
So what do we say to those who are still suffering sickness? Do we judge them simply as sinners and not offer them compassion, prayer and comfort? Why would our loving heavenly Father on the one hand promise forgiveness of sins, and with the other, punish us for them through mental or physical illness?
I’ve known many Christians who have long-term illnesses, both physical and/or mental, and I know that their illness is not the result of sin. I know this because I have seen God working in them and I see that they seek to make God the priority of their lives.
Personally, I know that physical and mental ailments are not always due to sin. I was born with a congenital defect in one hip which affected me even as a child. Was my problem due to sin? Of course not – I was born with this defect.
Then when I was in teens, I developed a spinal disease that led to the development of scoliosis and caused pain. By the time I was 21, the pain began to increase and by my late twenties was impacting my movement. The pain and restrictions affected my every day activities as well as the ministry to which God had called me.
In prayer I regularly sought God’s guidance about whether it was from sin and asked repeatedly for healing and clarity about whether I would be healed of it, but if anything, my pain and physical restrictions increased. In my mid thirties, God eventually answered my prayer and told me that I wasn’t going to be healed, not as a form of punishment because of my sin or lack of faith, but so that I would develop compassion and empathy for others who suffer.
Therefore, mental illnesses too are not always the result of sin. What do we say to those who are born with a mental illness? “You’re obviously still sinning, so don’t come and talk to me about that until you’ve fixed it?” Of course not! Can we make the judgement that a newborn infant is responsible for a deliberate sin and is being punished for it with a mental and/or physical ailment? If a person can be born with a physical or mental ailment, or develop it later, we cannot condescend to assume that the person is actively sinning and being punished for it.
In fact, not a single one of us is without sin. Yes, we are forgiven, but not a single one of us is able to go about our lives without committing a sin. If we don’t suffer a physical or mental illness, does that mean that we are somehow better than others who do have one? Are those with a physical or mental illness somehow committing a sin that’s worse than ours?
Let’s ask an important question, “Are some sins worse than others?” The Bible makes it clear that there is only one unforgiveable sin: blaspheming of the holy spirit. No other sin is unforgiveable or worse than others.
If we are suggesting that a person with a physical and/or mental illness is being punished for sin, than why isn’t everyone being punished for theirs, because none of us is able to live without sinning. Yes, we are working towards becoming more like Jesus, but that work isn’t completed in us until after we die.
Churches and Believers Are Becoming More Compassionate
Thankfully there are churches which offer compassion and understanding to Christian sufferers, and hopefully more churches will learn to accept that those with a mental illness should be allowed to seek appropriate medical treatment without fear of condemnation.
Just as we treat people with physical illnesses with proper medication and treatments, we should also treat people with mental illnesses with compassion and allow them to seek the medical and psychological treatments available to them. Would we deny medical help to a person with diabetes or heart disease or for a broken leg? Why then should we deny treatment to those with a mental illness, particularly since some mental illness are caused by physical problems?
Perhaps the reason we don’t treat those with a mental illness the same way we treat people with physical illnesses comes from our long history of superstition and fear in connection with mental illness, and because we don’t understand its cause or know how to treat it properly.
Perhaps even, we shun sufferers out of pride and our own sense of superiority.
While mental illness may in some instances be a sign of demonic possession, once a person becomes a Christian there is no way that a demon would be allowed to remain inside someone who is occupied by God through His Holy Spirit. God abhors evil, and so He would not allow evil to reside alongside Him in a believer’s heart and mind.
We cannot make the assumption either that mental illness is caused by demonic possession in every non-believer, although it’s possible in some cases.
Aside from demonic possession, we’ve discussed that while mental illness may on occasion spring from deliberate sin, in most instances it arises from various physical, biological and environmental causes, or a combination of these.
Modern medication and psychotherapy can be a tremendous assistance to those with a mental illness, although not everyone can be helped. Hopefully as our medical knowledge increases, we will be able to improve our treatments.
As Christians, we need to be mindful that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering from a mental illness. Statistics suggest that as many as 45% of the Australian population will suffer a mental health condition in their lifetime. I can only assume the statistics are similar in other countries. In any one year, around one million adults have depression, and more than two million suffer anxiety. Depression is claimed to be the leading cause of disability worldwide1.
We should ask God to help us to become more empathetic towards those who are afflicted, rather than add to their already heavy burden by our own callousness or judgement. If we act towards the mentally ill with intolerance, indifference or out of a sense of superiority, then which of us has the worse ailment?
What is your response towards those with mental (or physical) illness? On the day of judgement, how will God view your attitude and actions towards those who are afflicted? [END]
1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.
Unknown author (unknown date) “Causes of Mental Illness” (WebMD) available: http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-causes-mental-illness, accessed 17/10/16
Unknown author, no date, FAC – Family Caregiver Alliance: “Grief and Loss,” available https://www.caregiver.org/grief-and-loss, accessed 20/10/16
Authors: Glynn, Shirley M., PhD, Kangas, Karen, EdD, and Pickett, Susan, PhD, no date. American Psychological Association: “Supporting a family member with serious mental illness,” available: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/improving-care.aspx, accessed 20/10/16
Author: Karen Hanna, 23 March 2016, Karen Hanna Coaching: “Grieving Mental Illness,” available: http://www.karenhannacoaching.ca/uncategorized/grieving-mental-illness-2/, accessed 20/10/16