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‘Every illness is a spiritual problem’: How evangelical Christian communities see mental health

Jan 2nd, 2015 by

As part of the Guardian’s examination of how evangelical Christian churches address mental illness, we asked our readers to submit their stories about their own experience with mental illness or how their church discussed it

The holiday season, especially Christmas, often exists as a symbol of hope and joy in the Christian community. But this may not be true for all believers. According to a recent study completed by Lifeway Research, one in four American adults suffer from mental illness, and the Christian church is no exception.

The study indicated that although nearly half of evangelical Christians believe that mental illness can be overcome by “Bible study and prayer alone”, the thinking behind this belief is evolving. Whereas in 2007 evangelical writer and musician Carlos Whittaker was told by his pastor to not even speak about his struggle with anxiety, this year, prominent pastor Rick Warren hosted a day-long conference on addressing mental illness in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

I have never been depressed myself, but seem to fall into friendship with people who are. I have talked with friends coping with varying levels of depression. I never feel like I have anything substantial to say other than expressing how much I love them and believe in their ability to get better. It’s hard to watch, but I try to be there for them as much as I can.

After Robin Williams’s death, my senior pastor delivered a powerful message on how there is and always will be hope found in God. He went through a passage on Elijah (1 Kings 19) showing how God took Elijah through his depression. It was fantastic for me because it gave me a biblical basis for how to address my depression in the future, to take care of yourself and to keep listening for the still small voice that is God saying that everything is worth it.

I had a “breakdown” in my 30s; a phobic anxiety episode with panic attacks, agoraphobia and some mild depression. I was off work for three months and received counselling from the church for 12 months. I was mildly depressed as a result of bullying in a parish I was serving in my 50s. Members of my family suffer from anxiety and some from depression.

I am vicar of the church I belong to and mental illness is an issue we have been addressing for some time. We provide informal support for folk with substance abuse and addiction issues. We regularly teach at Sunday services about mental health problems and how to seek help. One of our clergy (not me) is a former mental health nurse and so is able to help in a professional way. It is my hope that there is no stigma attached to suffering from mental health problems in our church, but it is an issue which needs addressing constantly.

I’ve experienced depression, anxiety, PTSD. My latest church did not address it at all in over two years. Over the course of my life, from Baptist to fundamentalist to Presbyterian churches, I’ve been told that any mental health problems in my life are caused by a) incorrect theology or b) unrepentant sin.

Most have stated directly that they do not believe that mental illness exists, but that every supposed illness is a spiritual problem. Psychology and psychiatry were almost always distrusted as demonic, and reading my Bible more and obeying my pastor were the solution. – Samantha Field, 27, Maryland, Christian – Progressive

I have taught creative writing to several groups of adults with mental health challenges and also have ministered to them with my husband who is a member of the clergy. Our church addresses mental illness with great scepticism. Our denomination in the UK has guidelines regarding mental health issues, but they are evolving in use in local congregations. – Catherine, UK, Seventh-Day Adventist

I have dealt with anxiety and PTSD at different times in my life. Currently these issues are under control, but I have to maintain balance and healthy relationships in my life or else they can flare up again.

In the past, churches either didn’t acknowledge or talk about mental illness, or, when I was a child, the church I attended stigmatized those with described as having symptoms of psychosis, i.e. saying things such as the Devil has taken over a person’s mind, etc.

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