A Simple Prayer

“Lord, lead me out of the crazy place.”

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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.

What Is a ‘Nervous Breakdown,’ Really?

I once worked with someone some years ago who had several times in her life which she described as ‘nervous breakdowns.’ In one of them she described times when she would go catatonic: she would go to her room, wrap herself in a blanket, and remain motionless and expressionless for hours. From what I know of what was happening in her family and marriage at the time, it’s no wonder that she felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. I was reminded of her experience through my recent reading through a biographical account of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by an English professor, and it’s noteworthy that Zelda was institutionalized several times when she became delusional and dysfunctional, and sometimes these are called mental breakdowns.

Unfortunately, the term ‘nervous breakdown’ or ‘mental breakdown’ really isn’t a term of clinical psychology or psychiatry. It’s more a popular term and colloquial description, and it seems to have its roots back into the earlier half of the 20th century, when the term ‘nerves’ was used to describe ‘anxiety’. It isn’t used that much any more; panic attack nowadays is used much more accurately of some of these incidents. In other words, ‘nervous breakdown’ is not a professional diagnosis from either a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist, and probably has not been anything close to one for many years. It’s been for a long time a sign of amateur psychobabble and of amateur misdiagnosis. In the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, I think that the historical record might be well enriched by a forensic analysis by a professional psychiatrist in the light of more contemporary diagnoses and treatment.

Here are some online sources, some from professional psychologists and psychiatrists, which describe more of what people have meant by the term:

It’s valuable for pastors and Christian leaders to read over these descriptions, since it can help them to avoid jumping to wrong conclusions about what people are going through in their lives. Deep and overwhelming panic, hurt, disappointment and grief can often provoke a strong outward reaction in the people who are experiencing those emotions, and pastors and Christian leaders are often the closest person to be able to minister to those people. For instance, in some communities, someone experiencing the grief at the loss of a loved one may break out in loud crying and wailing. Most of the people going forward do not become dysfunctional in their lives nor do they show signs of delusions, mania, or catatonia, and are not living afterwards ‘on the verge of a nervous breakdown,’ as the cliché goes. They may live in sadness for a while, and may need to make some significant adjustments, but they may not need any kind of medication and certainly not need to be institutionalized, since their reaction is necessarily not the sign of something organically wrong with that person. I personally would not even call it ‘mental illness.’ Rather, I would call it a sign of deep psychological injury, along with those who are seeking to change the terminology to distinguish between organically based mental illnesses such as some forms of schizophrenia, developmental and character disorders such as narcissism, and psychological injury such as post traumatic stress disorder. These outward signs of psychic pain would thus correspond to the same signs of crying and screaming as when someone receives a very painful physical injury.

Usually in the Christian community, when someone tries to market a psychological condition such as depression or burnout, that person points to the dejected Elijah sitting under the broom tree (I Kings 19:4). Rather, the most perfect, sane and sinless person who ever lived once went through a brief period of extraordinarily deep sorrow and distress – measured in an hour or two — and prayed himself through it. That person was Jesus, and he went through this kind of great torment in the Garden of Gethsemane — he was overwhelmed. This is how he described his emotional experience: “My soul is extremely sorrowful, even unto death” (Mark 14:34). And this is how his praying is described: “And while he was in agony he prayed fervently, and it happened that his sweat became like drops of blood which fell upon the ground” (Luke 22:44). I would never, ever, though, apply this term of ‘nervous breakdown’ to the experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, because that term also has implications from the past that for someone experiencing a ‘nervous breakdown’ the next step is an institution, and I would never want to put anything close to that implication on Jesus. Rather, I think that we miss the reality of how deep that experience was for Jesus, because throughout the trial and crucifixion we see the same sane, calm, compassionate and truthful Jesus that we see throughout the gospels. But even more, for anyone going through  deep waters, the truth is that Jesus understands what you’re going through, and he is able to help you more than anyone else: “ . . . [he] in the days of his earthly life offered prayers and supplications with strong cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission . . .  for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who was tried in every way like us – apart from sin. Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and that we may find grace in times of our need . . .  since he is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 5:8, 4:15-16, 7:25).