The Evangelical Church’s Problem with Mental Health (A Missionary Kid’s Perspective)
I was raised in an ultra-conservative Evangelical family. Both of my parents worked for the missionary organization Cru (formally known as Campus Crusade for Christ), and when I wasn’t interacting with other missionary families, I was at church or my small, private Christian school.
My family and extended family also has a history of mental health issues, something that didn’t hit me until years later when I started dealing with my own declining mental health.
The stigma exists everywhere, but in the Evangelical church, it has a particularly foul stench. Why?
I’m going to attempt to answer that question by delving into six problematic characteristics of conservative Evangelicalism.
But, first, a few stories…
For the sake of privacy, I’ve altered them a bit.
She sat in the old Baptist church’s private cemetery with a small, silent crowd of mourners sitting in fold-out chairs. The pastor stood beside the coffin of her family member with his eyes turned down at the Bible in his hands.
What would he say? The manner of death — suicide — hung over the congregants, the family members. His children were present, his brother and sister, his ex-wives, his mother.
The pastor cleared his throat and began to tell stories. He told the story of when the deceased was younger and walked from his country home to church because he didn’t want to miss a sermon. He spoke of the kindness in his heart.
Then, he said: “Make no mistake. His soul belongs to God, and we will see him again.”
A girl lies awake in bed with the covers pulled up to her neck, too terrified to move. She imagines the invisible beings — demons — creeping towards her in the dark, touching her heart, whispering things in her ears.
Why do they keep torturing her? Why can’t she make them stop?
Your faith is too weak, they whisper in her ears. That’s why we keep coming here.
It’s a test, she thinks. One day, if she keeps fighting, the terror will stop.
The little boy suffers from nightmares. He wakes up screaming at night and can’t be alone.
“Spiritual warfare,” his parents whisper about him to their friends. “Satan knows that our church’s mission is important, and he’s attacking us.”
She can’t leave the house; she can barely get out of bed when the depressive episodes hit. She doesn’t think she believes in God.
They tell her not to take medication. They tell her she has to go to a biblical counselor who bases all his techniques in Scripture. When they’re fed up, they accuse her of laziness.
FYI, the girl lying in bed with the demons whispering in her ears was me.
The other stories are of people close to me.
Here are six points that help explain the Evangelical church’s problem with mental health.
1. A confusing relationship between the mind and spiritual being.
Christians believe humans are spiritual beings, that we have a soul that needs saving.
But, what separates the spiritual self from the physical brain?
Philosophers have been theorizing since ancient Greece about the soul. Are mind, body, and spirit all one? Are they strongly connected? Are they completely separate?
When someone begins struggling with his/her mind, many Christians struggle to separate that struggle from struggles of the soul.
This manner of thinking can translate to: you’re depressed? Well, then read your Bible more. Pray more.
2. A belief that a relationship with God makes you a new person.
The basic gospel message as touted by the Evangelical church is the following:
— Man is born into sin and deserves hell.
— Christ came and sacrificed himself on the cross so we could be forgiven.
— If we accept his gift, we are born again, sinless in God’s eyes, and can spend eternity in his presence (in heaven). If we don’t accept his gift, we are destined for hell.
Once a Christian is “born again,” some believe that it’s possible to lose salvation, while others believe that’s impossible.
Either way, the idea becomes that born again Christians are inherently different. They are redeemed; they have a personal relationship with God.
The act of salvation is viewed as entirely transformative. Of course, Christians will continue to struggle with sin, but if they repent, that sin will be forgiven.
The natural question then becomes: if they know they’ll be forgiven, doesn’t that give them more freedom to sin?
The most common answer I heard for this theological problem is essentially, yes, but they won’t.
Becoming a Christian is so transformative — that act of accepting God’s grace and spiritual presence in yourself and your life — that a true Christian will continue living in God. They will become disciples of Christ.
If they don’t? Well, they’ve lost their salvation, or they were never a true Christian in the first place.
How this translates into a problem with mental health is connected with my first point. Growing up, I was fed a narrative of constant transformation, growing closer and closer to God. The more you spend time with him, the more you learn about him, that process will essentially make you a better person.
When legitimate mental health problems emerge, especially things like depression and anxiety, it can be interpreted as “falling off the path.”
The church might surround you with love, but the consequence can be self-doubt, self-castigation, and a feeling that you’re not enough (which, by the way, are magnified and intensified by your mental health issues.)
This is what happened to me when I found myself experiencing periods of terror. I thought I was being tested, punished, and that if my faith was stronger, I would be able to conquer those feelings.
3. A black and white mentality.
Conservative Evangelicals believe the Bible to be inspired, inerrant, infallible…literally true.
This leads to a narrower range of interpretation, a stronger belief in solid answers.
The consequence? Evangelicals tend to a more black and white mentality.
If you even look at a woman lustfully, you’ve already committed adultery with her in your heart kind of deal.
Thoughts are good, or they’re bad and a result of our sinful nature.
If you cannot position your thoughts as something outside of yourself (your thoughts are not YOU), and you believe that they arise from your inherent sinfulness, you’ll be more likely to label the thoughts that arise from mental health problems as inherently sinful.
If you have suicidal thoughts, you may believe that is your sinfulness. If you’re suffering from postpartum depression and start hating your new role as a mother, you may believe it is the darkness of your nature.
Is the “darkness of your nature” something that requires a doctor visit? Or is it something that requires repentance and spiritual healing?
4. The belief that God heals, and that sickness can be caused by sin.
First of all, I want to begin by saying that this idea appears to be much less common than in the past.
That being said, the church has a long history of attributing disease and birth defects and mental illness as the result of sin: either the sin of the person suffering or the sin of the parents.
Despite advances in medical knowledge, some Christians are still spreading horrifying ideas, like that HIV/Aids is God’s punishment on homosexuals.
I personally witnessed a fundamentalist Evangelical imply that God had “blessed him” by giving him children without autism. Let that sink in…
In the Bible, Jesus casts out demons who suffer from — what appear to be — illnesses. For example, in Mark 9, Jesus casts a demon out of a deaf boy who has convulsions and foams from the mouth. He heals a blind man in John 9 and bestows upon his disciples in Luke 9:1: “[the] power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” (ESV).
Perhaps it is, in part, the lack of scientific knowledge behind mental illness that makes it so difficult for Christians to address it?
In any case, this tendency toward viewing hardships in life as a test of God, whether it’s tragedy or sickness, can lead to serious problems.
5. Distrust of people who think differently.
There’s a belief among the Evangelical community that only Christians can help Christians, and this leads to problems when they want to seek psychological help.
To illustrate, my parents decided to homeschool me because they believed the influence of secular education and non-Christian teachers to be a threat. When I finally attended school, they sent me to a private school whose philosophy centers around “worldview teaching.” The idea is that true education recognizes the truth of Scripture, and that we can only understand the world if we keep the Scriptures at the forefront.
Now, imagine someone of this viewpoint faced with the need to seek psychological help.
They may accept a medication prescription, but when it comes time to choose a counselor or go to psychotherapy, they’re faced with a moral dilemma.
This is why many Christian universities offer degrees in “Christian (or biblical) counseling.” It’s counseling based on a literal view of Scripture.
Focus on the Family, an enormous fundamentalist organization, for instance, keeps a directory of “approved” counselors. Right on the front page, it says “We can help you bring healing and restoration to your family with Christian perspectives you can trust.” To become an approved mental health provider, their application asks — among other things — about your opinion on abortion, biblical divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, the roles of husbands and wives, child discipline and spankings, and pornography.
Focus on the Family, by the way, lobbies against LGBT rights, including adoption by same-sex couples, promotes abstinence-only sex education, and has been involved in conversion-therapy…and counselors want to be associated with them?
This focus of putting their own moral convictions at the forefront, many of which have little if no scientific support (both conversion therapy and abstinence-only sex education have been scientifically proven as USELESS and often DANGEROUS), along with their belief that everything should be seen through a biblical lens, raises serious concerns. Focus on the Family is asking for partiality in therapy.
If you personally have strong fundamentalist beliefs, maybe this type of therapy would benefit you. I know people who would say their biblical counselors made a huge difference in their lives.
However, I’ll go back to one of my stories. When you have a child, for instance, who does not have strong Christian leanings, or maybe is struggling with issues related to sex or same-sex attraction, the last place they should be sent is to a “biblical” counselor.
But I digress.
The point is this.
There exists in the fundamentalist, Evangelical community a distrust of “secular” education and psychologists. When they seek counseling, they may turn to biblical counselors who hold definite biases of opinion and who consider those biases an important part of their work and value.
6. Even when churches want to address mental health, they are doing a bad job of it.
Several years ago, the well-known megachurch pastor Rick Warren, and author of the bestselling book A Purpose Driven Life, was faced with an incredible tragedy, the suicide of his son.
This event in particular forced churches to self-reflection, and many of them vocally rejected the idea that death by suicide means condemnation to hell.
Warren and his wife have since become advocates for mental health education and worked to equip churches with the resources they need to help people experiencing mental health problems, and their families, in church.
Despite this, a massive study done by LifeWay, which investigated the church’s handling of mental health, discovered that few churches are ready to handle the subject. Their basic findings:
Few churches have plans to assist families affected by mental illness
Few churches are staffed with a counselor skilled in mental illness
There is a lack of training for leaders on how to recognize mental illness
There is a need for churches to communicate to congregations about local mental health resources
There is a stigma and culture of silence that leads to shame
The bottom line? Pastors aren’t talking about mental health from the pulpit, and even when the church has resources available, people don’t know about them.
Another study done by LifeWay indicates that despite high rates of suicide, suicide remains a taboo subject in church.
(Disclosure: LifeWay is a Christian organization connected to Focus on the Family. However, their research appears legit.)
Add to that a couple of other interesting facts about people facing mental health crises.
First, certain types of mental health problems might seem like strong religious devotion (mania), as this Vox article points out. Also, those who struggle with mental health problems are much less likely to attend church regularly.
How does the depressed person manage to get out of bed and do something that is not required of them?
How many times does a socially anxious person have to encounter someone when they enter a church? The greeters? The hand-shakers? Communion? Are there seats available near an exit?
How is a schizophrenic person supposed to “fit in” with a church community if they don’t have their symptoms managed by medication?
These are all issues that churches need to address.
I worked with a woman who needed to go on medication for depression due to life events. As a strong conservative Evangelical, she was aware of how others in her church might perceive her.
She said to me, “We’re spiritual beings, but we’re also physical beings. Sometimes the physical being needs a little help.”
Moments like these give me hope that the conservative Evangelical church will one day come to terms with its issues around mental health. As much as I disagree with their theology, and as much as I feel it harmed me, it’s important for people to feel safe and loved in their community, and to seek help when they need it.
Have you been affected by the stigma of mental health within the conservative Evangelical church? I’d love to hear (and possibly share!) your story (anonymously).
You can email me at email@example.com, or message me on Instagram.