Question: How has faith shaped our view of mental illness?
Dr Adrian Warnock comments…
There are really two questions here:
1) How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? and
2) How does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?
First, let me share some of my own perspective on this.
I believe that Christianity has historically a mixed report card on this subject. Fundamentally our faith has always valued people as inherently of worth because all of them were made in the image of God. Thus, when practised correctly, our faith should lead to compassionate care for the weak.
Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:31-41). Throughout church history there have been good examples of Christians who have been inspired to care for the vulnerable, including the mentally ill.
Some of the impulse behind the good aspects of the asylum movement was definitely the Christian faith. We can follow in the footsteps of the best of that sentiment today by being willing, as a starter, to be on the lookout for mental illness and not be afraid to ask people about suicidal thoughts.
But there has also been another side. Like all people, Christians have struggled to understand mental illness. It is striking that the most popular post to date on my site was entitled ‘Can a Christian get depressed?’
Many Christians are aware how their own faith has helped them feel peace, as well as joy, and hope. When we see a person with mental illness we can be tempted to say something like ‘pull yourself out of it!’ Of course in some milder cases there are things that we can do to counter our emotions. But the more depression gets a grip, the less able people are to lift their mood in any way.
Encouragement and regular pastoral counselling does have a role, but the more severe a mental illness is the more it may need to be supplemented by medical help. Psychological and spiritual exercises are not sufficient on their own to treat much mental illness.
Because Christians recognise that peace, joy, and hope are fruits of the Holy Spirit’s activity in them, another response to mental illness has been to want to pray for the person.
This can of course be helpful. But, it is important that Christians grasp that we should no more rely on prayer alone for treating mental illness than for say cancer treatment. Asking doctors for help does not indicate a lack of faith.
There has also been a tendency to blame demon possession for all mental illness in some circles. This is unfortunate, and does not in any case reflect the scriptures where demonisation can cause a raft of different physical symptoms, including deafness and muteness.
Nobody today believes that all deafness and muteness is caused by a demon. So we should not make the same mistake about mental illness.
Dr Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor, has trained as a psychiatrist, and now works in research. He is part of the leadership team of Jubilee Church, London, where he has preached regularly for more than ten years. Article excerpted from an Adrian Warnock/Patheos blog
See Resources for information on his book, Raised With Christ – How The Resurrection Changes Everything, Crossway January 2010. Adrian Warnock link: firstname.lastname@example.org
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