Mental Health and Spirituality

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.



Filed under Urban Ministry

4 responses to “Mental Health and Spirituality

  1. Dear Wendy,

    I am a sufferer of depression – endogenous and it keeps company with an anxiety disorder. I came across your blog from a google alert and found your comments very helpful in understanding the perspective of Christianity and its struggle in supporting others with a mental illness or with emotional struggles. It never occurred to me that there was such a high expectation for God to “fix” things. It has never been in my thinking as a person and uncertain of what I believe that there should be such expectations – rather I thought and felt that there was an onus of acceptance on the individual and kind of an need to make the best of what we can. It has really helped me understand this other view.

    I have found that my involvement in the BigWhiteWall which is an onsite emotional support community that it is possible to just provide support to others and receive support when needed and feel the difference that this makes. Often in the world of dealing and coping with a mental illness means that we can be well serviced by the medical profession and by psychologists but where we are unable to connect with others – then we can get lost in ourselves and support is one way of reconnecting with ourselves as well as others. Life in modern day society seems to have shifted from home communities and there are many who because of what they have experienced are fearful of reaching out within their communities. My only guess is that the people that you write of are already connected to communities and gain the spiritual support from within their church communities. Sometimes though we need just to be listened to and to not feel invisible and silent in our suffering – perhaps this is also a role that a community based within a church might provide also?

    Thank you for your writing

  2. Roni Pfrang

    Thank you so much for this article! This is the first article I’ve read on your blog and it hit home for me. I have depression. It is undoubtly a chemical defeciency in my brain which may be hereditary. When I take my medication, I do excellent managing my depression. Even if I’m very busy and forget to take a dose I’m not affected. However, I know from an unfortunate experience that if I miss 3 days, I’ll be in trouble. I’ve tried to lower my dose because I have had such success for a long time on my current medicine, but after 6-8 weeks I could feel the “gloom” closing in again. Within days of returning to the regular dose the clouds lifted and I was feeling back in control. Medication alone would not be enough to keep me progressing. I have an excellent relationship with a therapist, which is so important also.
    People who don’t know me very well, and don’t know I have depression; or knew me long ago, before I had it are regularly surprised when I tell them. “You don’t seem the type” they say. I frequently get a response of “And who hasn’t” from someone I would not have expected to have experienced this. Depression is a condition which is much more common than most people know. This is exactly why someone who is feeling, or seems sad for an extended period; especially if they’re “not the type”, should seek professional medical advise.
    My faith life has, of course, been very important to me during this time. I have learned to lean more on God than ever before, He has never failed me, but faith alone would not have gotten me out of it. The love and patience of my husband during a long difficult time, also kept me on track to get where I am today.
    I will surely be taking medication the rest of my life to control depression. With the strength of God, and support of my husband, and my church family I will overcome the challenges which face me.
    Thank you so much.


  3. wmccaig

    Dear Jill and Roni,

    Thank you for your comments. You both have a lot to contribute to this conversation. I did check out Bigwhitewall and found the bricks interesting and disturbing at the same time. I think you are right that people are looking for connection and community but our society is shifting and it is harder to find. In reading some of the bricks I was saddened by the feelings of despair and loneliness that were present but they confirmed much of what I have seen lived out in the lives of those I work with. I think Mother Teresa’s observation that “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” I work with the poorest of the poor here in Richmond but I find some of the loneliest people are among the wealthiest.

    Jill you stated “Sometimes though we need just to be listened to and to not feel invisible and silent in our suffering – perhaps this is also a role that a community based within a church might provide also?” I started my ministry career as a small group coordinator and I found true community there in those small groups. I wish I could say that all churches or that even most churches do this and do it well, but my experience has been that often the church misses the mark on this one. However, I do believe that the answer to the despair and hopelessness is found in a healthy spiritual life lived out in community with others who are seeking to grow spiritually. Some find what they are looking for in the church, some in AA groups and perhaps some in on-line communities. My prayer is that the church will help to fill this void and will create opportunities for building true authentic relationships that are accessible to a sick and suffering world.


  4. Pingback: Healing the Wounds of the Bible Belt – Revisted | Wendy McCaig

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