The Modern Evangelical Church and Mental Illness

I think that for a long time it’s been a hard sell to say much about mental illness in the modern evangelical church. Mental illness has a way of challenging some of our evangelical tropes and the exaggerated conclusions we may draw form them:

  • “Jesus brings us joy”; therefore we should not feel sadness or grief, and if we do, something is wrong with us. Even more, whatever that is that may be wrong with us, I cannot speak truthfully about it because, my fellow believers will neither understand nor accept me because of it.
  • “Jesus brings us peace”; therefore we should not feel anxiety or fear, even though Jesus told us that in the world you will have tribulation.
  • “Jesus brings us love”; therefore if we are rejected and experience heartbreak, there’s something wrong with us – even though Jesus said that the world would hate us because of him.
  • “Jesus changes our lives”; therefore there is something wrong with us if something goes wrong with our thinking processes, even though Jesus told us that we will enter into the kingdom of heaven through many afflictions.

Over the years pastors and churches themselves have often followed the trends of the psychiatric and psychological community, and pastors have often seen themselves as or acted like a kind of junior varsity mental health worker. So they have often enough followed the trend of the psychiatric and psychological community in pathologizing problems of the ‘worried well’  — which we could easily call life adjustment problems –as in the same category as true brain and cognitive disabilities such as the many varieties of schizophrenia and manic depressive illness. Then, too, the casual use of much psychological terminology among proud, intrusive and ignorant people in our churches has often led to real travesties of those who try to play medical doctor or psychiatrist with second hand bits of knowledge and labels. Then again, there has often been real ignorance and actual cooperation of well meaning and compassionate believers with abusive people in the abusive practice of gaslighting.  Then again, any ministry to the poor and homeless will come to an awareness of the role of mental illness in poverty and homelessness – estimates are that in the USA 1/3 of the homeless have severe mental illness and that many of those in our prisons and jails have treatable mental illnesses, and much of this has been attributed to the desinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that took place since the 1960s. Even more, the causes of the kinds of brain diseases and cognitive impairments which are now called mental illness are not certainly known, but much of the current medical community believes that many of those who currently have twill be found to have either an environmental, bacterial, viral or other physiological origin.

I think that the first thing to do is for many to get a handle on where the current state of research is. It is now generally conceded that Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, among others who dealt in talk therapy and investigating what they thought was happening in the subconscious or as a result of a person’s past were wrong. And it’s unfortunate that many, many pastors, who may not have had much in the way of counseling courses since the 1970s or 1980s, may be attempting to minister with now discredited or superseded theories and understanding of mental illness.In addition, the consensus is growing that there are a number of problems which cause people deep grief, sadness and anguish which are not related to brain dysfunction. Furthermore, when I consider the experience of Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, I can only think that our understanding of the prevalence of the experience of sorrow and grief in a godly and holy person in our sinful and broken world has been sadly underestimated and often misdiagnosed. So, I offer the following links only as a starting point to get information.

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On a personal note, I’ve had contact over the past decade with many others who qualify as intellectually gifted in terms of IQ. One common theme in the stories of so many is the misdiagnosis of giftedness as a mental disorder even with trained medical professionals. Here’s some more information about this tendency.

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