A Breeding Ground For Stigma: Why the Church Has a Mental Health Problem
by Kristen Kansiewicz, LMHC
There has been a growing awareness in the past five to ten years that mental illness is experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike. Throughout our society, both in and out of the Church, there has been a push to end stigma and acknowledge the reality of mental illness as a physical disorder. In some church communities, there has been a pushback against this movement as some question the role of sin in behavioral issues or remain unsatisfied with the subjective diagnosis of many mental illnesses. So why do many Christians (and even many pastors) seem to struggle with the idea that mental illness is a physical disorder of the brain?
A Brief History of Psychology and the Church
To understand the current debate within the Church over the reality of mental illness we have to rewind about 150 years to the beginning of the modern psychology era. Prior to this there was certainly plenty of discussion about human behavior, but from the late 1800’s until today there has been a new era of psychology seeking to understand emotions and the “self.” Many of the early theorists, such as Sigmund Freud and even the behaviorists, stood in direct opposition to religion. Freud famously looked down upon religious beliefs, calling them a “system of wishful illusions.” Behaviorists, more scientific in their approach but no more spiritually minded, looked at people as blank slates that could be programmed by their environments.
These theorists began a trend which pitted psychology against religion. They sought to answer questions about humanity that the Bible had answered long ago, and they made assertions about the nature of humanity which were in direct opposition to the Bible.
By the 1960s, some Christians had begun to train as psychoanalysts, psychologists and psychiatrists, and they developed a way of thinking that integrated psychology with a biblical worldview. They began to accept studies of human behavior and learn from these while rejecting the theoretical notions that stood in contradiction to the Bible. In reaction to this, a pastor named Jay Adams famously wrote Competent to Counsel, in which he asserted that the Bible provided everything a pastor needed to provide counseling and that this was the only necessary treatment for most mood problems (which in his opinion were generally spiritual problems caused by a person’s own sin). He did allow for the existence of what he called “organic disorders” that could be verified by a medical test (such as a thyroid problem or a brain injury).
As a result of this unfolding of history, there has been significant debate and often strong divides within the Church in the past forty years about how mental health issues should be handled. Many pastors continue to reject psychology, medication and any secular mental health treatment in favor of pastoral or spiritual intervention. Many others have trained at evangelical colleges and seminaries and have become professional Christian counselors who work in private practices (or sometimes churches) to provide mental health care. As neuroscience moves from infancy into taking its first real steps, the conversation within the Church is becoming more and more outdated and out of touch. Our list of “organic disorders” must grow as science develops new ways of identifying all that is going wrong in the body when mental illness is present.
Spirituality, Emotions and the Blame Game
Within this debate about how to understand and treat mental health problems, questions loom about how we are to understand the role of emotions in our spiritual lives. Is joy the same as happiness, for example? What does it mean if a Christian, who has the hope of Christ, feels hopeless and suicidal? Is their faith weak? Have they sinned? Do they need to pray harder or trust in God more?
These questions reveal a deeper problem in the American Christian sub-culture: a tendency to blame the hurting. This trend extends far beyond mental illness, such as when those with any chronic illness are viewed as lacking in faith when they do not receive healing or when an abused woman is told to return to her abuser to demonstrate “true forgiveness.” Bible stories in which people were told, “Your faith has healed you,” are interpreted as an indication of a “quota” of faith that is required for healing. Instead, we must look at these verses in their cultural and religious context to see that it was not at all a measure of faith described, but rather a contrast to healing through works. Instead of the outward appearance of religion being a reflection of spiritual standing, an inward heart-faith had significant spiritual power. What we have done is converted “faith” into a measurable quantity that brings us right back to Pharisaical thinking.
What Can We Do About It?
One of the most significant things we can do to reflect the love of Christ as we address mental illness in the Church is to listen. A simple decision to reject an attitude of condemnation, as Christ modeled for us. In doing so, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. We can also lead the fight to get more answers. Christians should stay up-to-date with the latest research on the brain, as breakthroughs in neuroscience are happening on a weekly basis. We can also talk about mental illness in the same ways that we do any physical illness -- not as afflictions caused by the person suffering but as disorders that are part of living in a cursed world. Even in the larger mental health conversation, there is a false dichotomy created simply by the use of the term “mental illness.” We can begin to talk about these illnesses as “disorders of the brain,” reminding ourselves that the brain is simply an organ in our bodies in which disease can and does exist. In doing so, we can reduce stigma within the Church and stop blaming the hurting once and for all.
About the Author
Kristen Kansiewicz is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor on staff at East Coast International Church in Lynn, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In addition to her counseling practice, Kristen is a speaker and author of four books, including On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context which offers more on this article’s subject. Her blog can be found at ChurchTherapy.com, and you can also follow her on Twitter (@ChurchTherapist)
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