Dear Church: My Mental Illness is NOT a Spiritual Condition

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

I probably started experiencing bipolar episodes in adolescence, although they may have looked a lot like regular pre-teen hormones. Friends often described two versions of me: the bubbly, loud, won’t-shut-up, risk-taking version of me, and the deeply depressed, barely functioning, often suicidal version.

In fact, my first real prayer was in the midst of a botched suicide attempt at age 16.
I had slit my wrists and was bleeding all over the dusty rose carpet of my bedroom in my parents’ quaint country home. I got down on my knees and prayed the prayer off the back of a tract I had been given. And when I read aloud the final words “heal me in mind, body, and soul” I tacked on “and please God, stop the bleeding until I get to the hospital.”

The bleeding did stop. Until we pulled into the hospital parking lot and I began gushing blood again. I took this to mean that the God I had just met had heard my prayer.

So all of the time I have spent in the church has been as a person with mental illness, whether I recognized it at the time or not. And as I’ve treaded the difficult waters of mental illness, I’ve found myself having to scream this one thing from the figurative rooftops over and over again:

Mental Illness is NOT a Spiritual Deficiency.

My heart grows heavy when I read that 48 percent of evangelicals believe that severe mental illness can be cured by bible study and prayer alone.

But this statistic does match my personal experience. Over and over again I have been explicitly or implicitly told that my problem is a spiritual one. From pastors suggesting that I needed to re-pray the sinner’s prayer, to friends exhorting me to renounce the satanic influence in my life, to encouragements to memorize scripture as a cure to my disordered brain, the message has often been that if I only did they right combination of spiritual practices I would be cured.

Suggesting that mental illness can simply be cured by getting right with God turns everyone suffering in the church with a mental illness (approximately 25% of us) into second class Christians because we cannot will away the symptoms of a physically sick and disordered brain.

Part of me gets why we do this.

Mental illness is messy and scary and out of our control. And as humans we try to make sense of things that are messy and scary by explaining it away. If we can know why something is happening, we can make sure it doesn’t happen to us or those we love. If we can figure out who is to blame for tragedy, if we can peg it on sin or weakness of character or a lack of spiritual discipline, we can convince ourselves that we are safe if we only perform the right activities.

That’s what the disciples were trying to do in the gospel of John when they asked if it was the blind man’s sin or his parents’ sin that caused him to be blind. They wanted to make sense of tragedy. They wanted to know who to blame. But Jesus tells them that it is neither.

This is life or death.

One of the reasons this idea that mental illness is a spiritual problem is so insidious is that many of us suffering from mental illnesses desperately want to believe it’s true. When you tell me that I can pray away my illness, I want to believe you.

I have lost count of how many times I have stopped taking my medications under the belief that if I just try harder, or pray more, or do something differently this time, it will be unlike all the other times and I will be okay. And each time the results were disastrous, not just for me, but for those who love me.

Mental Illness claims lives every single day. It almost took mine on a few occasions. Many people who die by suicide do so in the grip of acute mental illness. Their brain is sick and they are desperate.
When you tell someone that the solution to their medical problem is a spiritual solution, it becomes a barrier for those experiencing mental illness in the church to get the help and support they need. You are putting the lives of vulnerable brothers and sisters in Christ as risk.

Science and faith are not at odds here. 

Can God cure mental illness? Can he end a lifelong struggle with a snap of his fingers? Of course he can. But often, He doesn’t. That’s not always how God chooses to work in this broken world. To acknowledge that God doesn’t always cure us completely doesn’t deny or detract from His goodness.  If anything, it reminds us of his faithfulness as He walks with us through life’s ongoing difficulties. Sometimes people suffer with an illness until death. To tell them that their struggle means they don’t know Jesus or haven’t prayed hard enough is spiritual abuse.

 When any medical crisis hits, we know intuitively that people require both medical care and spiritual care. Just as we don’t expect the Sunday morning service to fill the place of treatment for someone with heart disease, or expect a diabetic to stop taking their insulin and pray instead, or expect a person with a broken bone to live in faith as if the bone weren’t broken, nor should we expect the church to fill the role of medication and psychotherapy in the mentally ill person’s life.

For me, my faith is an important part of my well-being, but it does not replace medical care for my medical concerns. I am blessed by a church and community of friends willing to walk with me through this sometimes devastating illness. The church can walk with me through this, but the church won’t cure me.

Please, don’t ask a sick person to choose between doctors and church. It is not medical vs spiritual. It is not this or that. It’s this and that.

How can the church respond better to those with mental illnesses?

My experience hasn’t been all bad.

There have been friends that brought meals and offered childcare after my stay in the psychiatric inpatient unit; that visited and sat with me in my pain when they didn’t know what to say. Who didn’t let the awkwardness keep them away.

There are the pastors who pointed me towards professional help and spoke words of truth and life and encouragement to me when I wanted to die.

There were the friends who let me wrestle with my diagnosis out loud. Who nodded and accepted and loved on me while I wondered through a lifetime of decisions, were they me or my illness?

There were flowers and gift cards and handwritten prayers left on my doorstep.

I know that some of us struggling with mental illness have felt let down by the church. But I also know this: There are kind and loving people of God, willing to step into one another’s stories in very real and practical ways, despite the awkwardness and uncertainty.  I know that there are compassionate people who want to help and understand, without pretending to have the answers or the ability to pray away the sickness.

May we be that church today.

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