Revealing a life with mental illness requires either a lot of trust or a lot of exhaustion, or a combination of both. The symptoms and experiences of my own life with mental illness is complexified by my faith. Belief is the favored Christian prescription for mental illness. Pills? Heck no; just prayer! Anxiety? Cast it on the Lord. Depression? Leave it at the foot of the cross. After all, miracles happen every day!
We would be wary of someone who encouraged their diabetic parent to give up the medications and the diet changes and to cast their insulin needs on Christ alone. But faith persists as a prescription for mental illness even when we have stepped back from offering it for physical ailments. The church fails to specify exactly how and why faith will heal, only that it will. But the moment we scratch the theological surface, we find a whole host of bad theology and bad psychology masquerading as “biblical truth.”
I in no way want to deride the importance of prayer, especially communal prayer. The prayers that we offer up over our mental health, our depression, our anxiety, the other illnesses that besiege our minds and spirits are as hopeful and as helpful as the prayers we offer over every other physical disease that strikes us, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to substance abuse. The positivity makes a difference, sometimes even makes a miracle, but by and large in medical experience, the positivity can help but it cannot cure.
The most effective treatment, to date, for the majority of mental illness appears to be a cocktail of chemical intervention, cognitive therapy, meditation and/or habit shifts (body engagement through exercise, nutritional changes and so on). And yet, the church persists in prescribing only an increase of faith. We have relegated mental illness to categories of sin, or a test of faith, or demon possession; we have made it a weakness of the will that can be overcome by better personal devotion, or a cause for physical and emotional abuse in the name of “curing” it. We have compounded the shame of depression, addiction or delusion through ignorance and isolation. What if the church taught that toxic positivity and denying medical attention to those in distress was a sin?
We have failed, too, to attend to how systems of oppression, subjugation and dehumanization have been direct contributors to compounded mental illness in individuals, communities and multiple generations. Women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ communities, disabled people, the poor—all experience specific kinds of mental illness at higher rates than their male, white, straight, able-bodied, financially stable counterparts. For a church commissioned by the apostle Paul to confess that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), should we not reject systems of hierarchy and oppression which not only treat equal members of the body as unequal but subject them to long-term illness because of it?
What if the church taught that toxic positivity and denying medical attention to those in distress was a sin?
Providers of mental health care in the secular sector have long acknowledged all this; our ability to experience love and acceptance, or to pursue our passions and develop our talents, is seriously hindered when our physical needs and sense of safety and stability are unmet or endangered. In contrast, too often the “Christian” approach has been to ignore the rotten fruits of its own isms and phobias, perpetuating systemic traumas against marginalized populations, shaming and demonizing individuals at any level who experience symptoms of mental illness, while insisting that its approach is perfectly historical, literally biblical, theologically sound and solely salvific.
Seeking care outside the borders of the church has been proof not of the church’s failure to care for the least of these among them but a failure of faith (and, often, an endangerment of salvation) on behalf of the patient.
Our brains can be affected by any multitude of factors from the chemicals in the ooze not absorbing properly to the sun going down an hour early. Our minds and hearts, on an emotional and mental level, are composites of what has happened to us (and to our parents and grandparents and our population subsets), with a good amount of thoughts, feelings and behaviors becoming so habitual that only serious and direct intervention can steer them in a new way.
On a communal level, we are social creatures who seek out connection with others yet can be deeply wounded by instances of that same connection. Yet the church’s stance toward mental illness—making it a burden for the patient themselves to unravel through proper “devotion”—rejects all these facts about ourselves.
The church’s most common framework for mental illness has been to categorize it as a form of sin. What if, in fact, the church’s desire to make mental illness a problem of the individual’s faith, rather than to recognize it as a medical condition requiring treatment and as a potential symptom of a sick society—what if that is a sin?
This article is excerpted from All Who Are Weary: Easing the Burden on the Walk With Mental Illness (Broadleaf Books, 2021) by Emmy Kegler.