Historically Christians have struggled with mental health and how to care for those who suffer from mental illness. I was recently read a blog post by a pastor whose wife suffered from severe bouts of depression. He reached out to his fellow ministers and asked for advice. The first response was that his wife needed to go to a healing service, then others chimed in about the need for her to spend more time in prayer and meditation, then another suggested she was under attack by a demonic spirit and needed to have that spirit cast out. To each of these responses the pastor responded that he had tried all of these approaches with his wife and none of them had healed her. No one on that blog ever suggested that his wife may have a medical condition that needed to be treated by a mental health professional.
My husband suffers from Thyroid disease. The Thyroid disease manifests it’s self in a way similar to depression. He has low energy, is irritable, and feels depressed. Prior to his diagnosis, there were days that I wondered if we would make it; days I did not want to be around him. Thankfully, he went to the doctor, went through testing, and they figured out what was wrong. Every day he takes synthroid to replace what his body is not able to produce on its own. There are day’s he forgets or runs out and he returns to that grumpy, what I perceive as lazy, unpleasant person. Had he gone to the church with his symptoms he would have heard the advice I listed above, pray more, meditate more, put God at the center of your life. All those suggestions are great and may bring temporary relief to his suffering spirit, however, he would still be sick and in need of medical care.
I am not suggesting that people with depression have thyroid disease, but what I am suggesting is that some people with depression have a medical condition that requires medical treatment and that this is in no way the fault of the person with the condition. I see so many people who suffer from mental illness who refuse to seek help from a mental health professional and instead turn to the church or to spiritual advisors seeking help. When they are unable to pray themselves out of their condition, they become defeated, more depressed and feel alienated from God.
I am not trying to minimize the power of prayer; I believe prayer is core to our spiritual health. However, I think we often confuse spiritual health and mental health. I think the two often look very similar. I personally suffer with situational anxiety. I lead a very dynamic and often chaotic agency that seems to change daily. I work with individuals who are themselves very fragile, many of whom suffer from mental illness which makes our work environment one of constant challenges. Conflict and change create anxiety and I have not yet learned to manage either as well as I would like. However, I do not suffer from an anxiety disorder. My anxiety is directly linked to my work environment. If I stay in prayer and remember that God is in control of the chaos, then I am able to manage my anxiety. When I fail to pray or begin to think that somehow I am in control of the agency, I become overwhelmed by anxiety and I either shut down or try to take control of things both of which lead to more anxiety and conflict. My issues can be managed through healthy spiritual practices and do not require medical treatment.
However, I think as people of faith and spiritual leaders, we must recognize that there are mental conditions that can only be managed through medical treatment. It takes discernment for pastoral care providers to recognize when an issue is bigger than ones spirituality. None of us would go to our primary care physician for neurosurgery. However, there are spiritual leaders who are treating serious mental illness as a simple lack of faith; this is like treating cancer like a common cold. This is not only disturbing, it is dangerous. I have personally almost lost three people to suicide in the last year alone, all of whom felt that if God wanted them healed then they would be healed. Not finding that healing, they assumed their life was not worth living. I recently saw one of these individuals and he shared that after his suicide attempt, he was put on anti-depressants and that he now is able to manage his depression. As a pastor, it is hard to admit that I did not have what Joe needed, but I am thankful that God led him to a source of healing. I pray we as people of faith and especially pastoral care providers will learn more about mental illness and will develop better partnerships with mental health professionals. I pray that the community of faith would begin to talk openly and honestly about mental health and that we would treat the victims of these illnesses like we do any other sick person who is seeking treatment, instead of blaming the patient and telling the patient to heal themselves, we would instead drive them to the doctor and pray for their healing.