Illness Is Caused By Unrepentant Sin? How Evangelical Christians See Mental Health

Personal Health

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.

As part of the Guardian’s recent 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 individual church discussed it.

While these stories do illustrate a range of experiences, from negative to positive, the responses indicate that churches of all denominations are making steps, slowly, to constructively address mental health.

‘The future is full of hope’

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 only moved to the city I live in now about two years ago, and the sermon I mentioned is the only time I can remember mental health being addressed. Since then I’ve noticed we’ve adopted the phrase, “The future is full of hope” to our church’s livestream and podcast intros, so I think addressing mental illness is becoming less taboo, but it’s still a hard topic to broach when there are so many differing ideas on it within as large a congregation as we have. – Rachel Pierce, 23, California, Christian – Baptist

‘The more we talk about it, the more people seem able to talk about 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.

The more we talk about it, the more people seem able to talk about it! We are conservative evangelicals (as per the original article) but I don’t think in my time here we have ever stigmatised those who suffer from mental health problems. The church has a history of welcoming those with learning disabilities, behavioural problems, depression and other mental health issues. – John Simmons, 60, UK, Church of England

‘I’ve been told that any mental health problems in my life are caused by unrepentant sin’

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

‘Our church address mental illness with great scepticism’

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 address 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

‘It was a relief to hear that I wasn’t alone’

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.

After going through a divorce a few years ago, I started attending a church known to offer support to people in difficult circumstances. Even though it was Evangelical, I went to Twin Lakes Church because they conveyed a message of love and compassion, which is what Christianity is supposed to be about, in my opinion.

I was extremely shocked when the teaching pastor, Rene Schlaepfer, delivered a message about his own challenges with OCD this last year. It was incredibly moving and was such a relief to hear how this representative of the church struggled with these issues and that I wasn’t alone. I felt like this not only represented a breakthrough for me, but for those around me who looked like they could also identify with what Rene had shared. Jesus set an example of humility for his followers – and it doesn’t get more humbling than sharing your mental health struggles with others in a public forum. I feel very blessed to have found this affirming faith community. – Kris, 43, California – Christian

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