How Right-Wing Evangelicals Stigmatize the Mentally Ill
On a Veteran’s Day broadcast last November, two of America’s most influential televangelists claimed that good Christians can’t get PTSD.
Kenneth Copeland, who is famous for pitching a fit when a senator tried to investigate his nonprofits and for inspiring a measles outbreak, said, “Any of you suffering from PTSD right now, you listen to me. You get rid of that right now. You don’t take drugs to get rid of it, it doesn’t take psychology; that promise right there [in the Bible] will get rid of it.”
Copeland’s guest, conservative revisionist historian David Barton, agreed, adding, “We used to, in the pulpit, understand the difference between a just war and an unjust war. And there’s a biblical difference, and when you do it God’s way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you’re esteemed.”
Barton believes that anybody who behaves “biblically” during war can’t get PTSD. Unfortunately, there is a logical flip side to this statement: someone who has PTSD must have not been biblical in his actions, and thus he is ultimately responsible for his own PTSD.
Understandably, a lot of people are upset by Barton and Copeland's assertion. Even the staunchly conservative Gospel Coalition (TGC) and America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), made no bones about their distaste for Copeland and Barton, the former calling them “profoundly stupid,” the latter “callow and doltish.”
That’s an aggressive attack, especially given that a significant number of Christians, including leaders at SBC and TGC, share Barton and Copeland’s belief that mental illness can be cured by faith. A September survey by LifeWay showed that fully 35 percent of Christians and 48 percent of self-identified evangelicals believe prayer alone can heal serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder.
The idea that major illnesses can be cured by prayer feeds the idea that mental illness is the fault of the ill. A 2008 survey conducted by Baylor psychology professor Matthew Stanford showed that 36 percent of mentally ill church attendees (and former church attendees) were told their mental illness was a product of their own sin, while 34 percent were told their illness was caused by a demon. Forty-one percent were told they did not really have a mental illness, and 28 percent were instructed to stop taking psychiatric medication.
These numbers reveal an ingrained distrust of mental illness and the mentally ill. This distrust has a dramatic and negative impact on people’s lives, alienating them from their peers and causing them to question the validity of their own experience, a process that often causes Christians to leave their churches. One of the participants in Matthew Stanford’s study described his experience:
I felt shunned at the church. A lot of the other members acted as though they didn’t want to get close to me. A lot of people were afraid of me. The pastor didn’t want anything to do with me. Therefore, I no longer attend any church at all. I watch church on TV. I am already paranoid; I didn’t need anyone keeping their distance from me. It makes me depressed to go to a regular church in person because of how I am treated.
Stanford, a self-described, “very conservative, evangelical Christian” is quite critical of how his fellow Christians handle the issues surrounding mental illness, claiming that the mentally ill are “modern-day lepers”: treated as “unclean and unrighteous” and “cast out” from their communities.
Amy Simpson, another popular Christian voice who critiques mental health stigma in the church, echoes these sentiments. She wrote in her book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, “The church allows people to suffer because we don't understand what they need and how to help them. We have taken our cue from the world around us and ignored, marginalized and laughed at the mentally ill or simply sent them to the professionals and washed our hands of them.”
This widespread stigma has its genesis in an attempt to create a system called “Nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling, a system that was supposed to fix the damage psychiatry caused to Christianity. Biblical counseling had its genesis in the anti-psychiatry movements of the '50s and '60s, which united leftist intellectuals like Thomas Szasz with conservative Christians and fringe groups like Scientologists. The founder of biblical counseling was author Jay E. Adams, whom Stanford called the “Moses of the biblical counseling movement.”
Adams’ quintessential work, the 1970 Competent to Counsel, proposes that mental illness occurs not because one is “sick” but because one is “sinful.” Psychiatry, in attempting to treat a disease, is thus ineffective. This idea led Adams to create a method that addressed the sinful roots of mental illness and was based on scripture.
This method was Nouthetic counseling, which comes from the Greek noutheteo, meaning “to admonish.” Adams believes in solving people’s mental health problems by “confronting” them over their lack of faith. He posits that the best way to deal with sin is to meet it head-on, bible in hand.
Adams’ methods were a product of their time. A negative attitude toward the mentally ill pervaded America in the ‘70s and ‘80s, embodied by the Reagan revolution, which stigmatized America’s homeless and destitute and blamed the downtrodden for their own plight. Meanwhile, Christians had come to distrust the secular world, which they believed was responsible for dissolving marriages, encouraging homosexuality and undermining the Christian faith. They wanted to set up their own institutions that would be separate from the secular world, and thus needed their own psychiatry. In this milieu, Jay Adams’ ideas found the perfect ground to grow in.
The philosophy introduced by Adams in Competent to Counsel birthed a movement, and Nouthetic counseling grew to become a discipline. Although Adams’ specific brand of Nouthetic counseling has gone out of style, biblical counseling, which builds on his ideas, is in.
Nowhere is biblical counseling more in vogue than the Southern Baptist Convention, which adopted a resolution on mental health last August that supported “research and treatment of mental health concerns when undertaken in a manner consistent with a biblical worldview.”
In fact, it was the boss of the SBC spokesman who called Barton and Copeland “callow and doltish,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore, who brought counseling into the SBC. In 2005, as the dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Moore unmade the school’s trademark “Pastoral Counseling” program, which integrated psychology with theology, and replaced it with an Adams-inspired biblical counseling program.
While the SBC doesn’t agree with Adams on every issue, it hasn't tried to hide his influence in its current curriculum. The resources page for SBTS’s Biblical Counseling department contains nearly 30 of Adams’ works, alongside works of conservative Calvinists like Sovereign Grace Ministries’s disgraced founder CJ Mahaney and megachurch pastor John MacArthur.
If the resources page is any indication, most of the people SBC considers adept biblical counselors also happen to be staunch theological conservatives. This is perhaps because anti-psychology tends to fit in with the conservative mindest: Matthew Stanford mentioned that in his personal experience, a significant number of pastors distrust psychology because they are angry the APA stopped calling homosexuality a mental disorder.
Stanford said, “They bring up homosexuality, and say ‘why did the APA take it out of the diagnostic manual?’ There’s this idea that psychology is legitimatizing sin, or saying it’s okay to sin.”
Perhaps this is what Moore was talking about when he claimed that, in a speech on SBTS’s new biblical counseling program, “There’s an ideology driving the research” of psychologists, or when he claimed that pastoral counseling failed “because it is so naive about the presuppositions behind secular psychologies.” Even if he isn’t specifically talking about homosexuality, Moore thinks that psychology has inherent anti-Christian undertones.
This might hint at why Copeland and Barton felt the need to speak out against PTSD treatment on TV in the first place, and why the contemporary church is so prone to stigmatizing the mentally ill: seeking treatment for clinical depression, even being clinically depressed in the first place, can be construed as being anti-Christian. It can indicate that somebody has embraced the “psychiatric mindset” instead of trusting God with their mental illness. In this world, the mentally ill are not just stigmatized, they are suspected sinners.