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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christians and mental illness, part I

This post and the one to come owe their inspiration to internetmonk’s recent series on the Christian and mental illness. Of long and abiding concern to me, this subject has prompted many a private meditation of mine. I recently posted some thoughts "on addiction” at Intellectuelle (before learning of iMonk’s series via Martin LaBar’s blog), which came about partly due to my ponderings on the heart/mind dichotomy/connection. This dichotomy itself is seemingly troublesome for some Christians, if not Christians in general. Upon reading various opinions on it I have repeatedly been taken back to thoughts on mental/emotional/spiritual health that I’ve wanted to publish, pending the right moment to do so. Whether the “right moment” has arrived I do not know, but nevertheless I shall write (or share my comments on Spencer's series, anyway).

I appreciate the series very much because of Spencer's basic thesis that mental (or emotional) illness is real, it is sin, and that those who suffer from it deserve truthful and compassionate treatment. (I believe this is the case whether the “ill” person is Christian or not, though some aspects of treatment will necessarily differ between the two types of person.) At the same time, Spencer raises and addresses the most important questions pertinent to the issue while also allowing them to somewhat remain questions, which I think is reasonable and fair.

I agree with Spencer that a great portion of the science of psychology is valid, and that it is helpful toward diagnosis and treatment of mental illness for anyone who has it. I do think that a spiritual dimension ought to be added to such diagnoses, however; often there is a spiritual issue underlying or contributing to an issue of mental or emotional health. (The same can be said for physical health to some extent as well.)

I also agree that sometimes the actual definition of mental or spiritual health can be evasive and rather controversial. It’s well known that giftedness and mental/emotional disturbance often go hand in hand (though not always, of course), and who’s to say where giftedness leaves off and disturbance takes over, or vice-versa? Certainly giftedness can be corrupted, but disturbance can also be beautiful if it reveals some profound insight into the humanity that all of us share. As Spencer states: in some cases, “‘normal’ is a kind of social/behavioral conformity forced upon the young by experts and educators...The wonderfully diverse and non-conformist side of human beings is the enemy in this definition of normal.”

We all learn to conform in order to live and interact successfully with our environment. We must. But some have more difficulty with it than others; I truly believe that a great portion of mental/emotional illness is due to a lack of ability or willingness to “learn the language of society,” so to speak. This can have both legitimate and illegitimate components.

Spencer also asks, “Is the Christian view of mental illness to categorize mental illness as the activity of demons and/or the result of sin?” (The Christian and Mental Illness part III) He makes the case that the ancients, being pre-scientific, had a different interpretation of reality than we do, and therefore credited many things to demons and such that today are diagnosed as having a physical cause. I agree with him to an extent on this. However, he does not seem to allow for much of a spiritual component to mental/emotional illness at all. Perhaps he is reacting against a philosophy that ignores the physical completely in favor of spiritual causes, which is certainly legitimate, though to my mind he may be swinging too far in the other direction. But more on that later.

Spencer does, in Part IV, state the difficulty in disentangling mental/emotional illness and sin. He speaks of depressed feelings, saying, “These feelings are so much a part of our fallen condition, so involved in our fallen perspective, that we can’t fail to see both our true humanity and our fallen humanity at the same time.” “Fear, anger, unforgiveness: all of these things are the stuff of depression, and they are failures to trust God.” On the one hand, I see his point here, but on the other hand, some of the reasons many people are depressed are based on truth: we are sinful, fallen creatures. Yet depression may ignore the fact that we are made in the imago dei and are deeply loved by God. Also, I wonder whether depression is made up primarily of fear, anger, and unforgiveness; I tend to think of these things as being secondary to (or resultant from) feelings of hopelessness, failure, and unlovable-ness, or lack of feeling loved.

Says Spencer, “I have seen many people helped when they moved from seeing themselves as a psychiatric diagnosis and became a person operating in the categories of Christianity and Christian community. I believe that a change of perspective often has dramatic results on our human problems.” I give a hearty “amen” to this and personally can’t stress it enough. In my own life, it’s been through people showing the true love of God (agape’) to me and allowing me to see a different way of being viewed – often truly incarnating what I had learned to be true but couldn’t quite conceive of, experientially – that I have gained any shred of social understanding and happiness in this world. It is this sort of “treatment” that has enabled, equipped, and emboldened me to practice what I already knew via conscience and the Golden Rule even before I gained any depth of understanding of Christianity.


  • Well said. Thanks for posting this.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 9:24 AM  

  • I also enjoyed reading IMonk's series. I hope you will continue yours, too.


    By Blogger Hannah Im, at 9:06 PM  

  • While I appreciate your points about the link between spiritual malaise and mental illness, you would be mistaken in blaming all mental illness on sin. I am concerned that so many Christians want to blame people with mental illnesses, as though they'd brought the problems on themselves, instead of understanding that a person with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia - you name it - can no more confess away their mental illness than a person can confess away cancer. We live in a fallen world, and as such our bodies don't work as perfectly as God intended. Mental illness is as much a by-product of Adam's fall as any physical illness. You would do better to extend a hand of loving support to a person suffering from mental illness.

    By Blogger Merrykate, at 1:58 AM  

  • I am appalled by such backwards theories. I know many people with mental illness that have a stronger connection with God than so called mentally stable persons. I think these views are hypocritical as God teaches love and charity not seregation.You should help these people and their families,not pity them or look down on them.Many with mental illness have mystical experiences that sometimes involve them seeing and hearing God,if you call these people crazy you are calling many of your icons crazy,and IF that is the case how can mental illness be a sin?Do not apply double standards to my question. I think people are confused about religion in this day and age because of hypocrites like yourself. People like you make this world sinful with your massive egos. Your moral superiority is nothing but pride. That is sin. Do not point the finger and look the other way or preach to cure a MEDICAL ILLNESS. Illnesses such as Schizophrenia have genetic links that are still not completely understood. You can't believe away cancer,even though miracles happen. I am not a skeptic. Mental illness can be cured by a belief in God but also needs medication, support and therapy to be eliminated or controlled.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:36 AM  

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