Mental Illness 101 for Christians

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What’s your opinion: were the “demons” Jesus drove out in the New Testament literal demons, or simply a metaphor for psychoses and hallucinations?

I ask that question not to get involved in any theological debate, but because the larger question of Christian attitudes toward mental illness is important to me. Several people in my family have mental-health issues. I myself struggle with Asperger’s syndrome and dysthymia–and it still smarts to recall the time a presumably well-meaning friend told me, “Nobody ‘has’ Asperger’s. It’s just an excuse made up by people who are unwilling to face up to the sin of not loving others.” Job’s comforters could hardly have done a better job of kicking someone who was already down.

Even worse off are Christians with addictions they can’t seem to shake despite their best efforts and deepest prayers. Is it possible to be a sincere Christian and be literally powerless against the urge to drink heavily, eat to the point of vomiting, or slash one’s own arms? Common sense would seem to say no, those actions are deliberate decisions. Yet testimony from many committed Christians and those who love them would indicate that, in some cases at least, the answer is yes.

If we believe God, for reasons of His own, chooses not to heal every prayed-for person with cancer or muscular dystrophy, why is it hard to believe He may let some of His followers bear the cross of mental or behavioral illness throughout their earthly lives?

Probably because mental illness is hard for doctors to diagnose, and even harder for ordinary people to recognize. It’s easier to say, “Oh, s/he’s just stubborn/self-centered,” and leave the affected party to struggle with something that’s assumed to be their own fault anyway.

However, if we’re serious about loving our neighbors as ourselves and not causing our weaker brothers to stumble, a little more compassion is in order.

If a Friend or Family Member Has a Mental Illness

  • Unless you have a spiritual gift of healing to the extent of having successfully told someone in a wheelchair to stand up and walk, never tell someone with a mental illness to “just snap out of it.”
  • And don’t tell anyone, “If you just had more faith,” or “You just need to find out what you need to repent of.” There’s no one explanation for mental illness, and passing flippant judgment on any individual case is akin to claiming wisdom equal to God’s.
  • Support your loved one in finding healthy alternatives to circumstances that are likely to trigger mental health episodes. Respect the other party as the expert on what he or she can’t handle, and don’t flaunt in their face that you have no difficulties there.
  • Always listen to your loved one with empathy. Don’t try to solve their problem (you probably can’t) or demand they explain it to your satisfaction (they probably can’t). Just let them know you care no matter what.
  • Remember to pray for them!

If You Have a Mental Illness

  • Don’t blame yourself or wallow in shame. Get professional help.
  • Know your weak spots and the best ways to avoid or cope with them.
  • Concentrate on what you can control.
  • Enlist help from those who understand your illness (or at least what to do and not do). Limit contact with anyone who makes things worse by pushing “if you’d just get right with God” opinions.
  • Remember to pray about your situation! Whether or not you get any better, believe in God’s support.

And for everyone: remember there will be a time when all our illnesses of body and mind will be healed forever!

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10 Comments

  1. Martha Hunt

     /  December 28, 2018

    GOOD one, Kathy! This advice is so important, & so poorly understood. Keep going!!!!

    Reply
  2. I raised foster kids with special illness and worked with hundreds of others in schools. It’s strange that some people think mental and psychological problems aren’t real or are the result of sin, but they’d never think that about a person who was blind or couldn’t walk.

    Reply
  3. I meant to say mental special needs.

    Reply
  4. Jo Swank

     /  December 28, 2018

    Such wisdom, Kathy! And thank you for being so vulnerable!
    Peace,
    Jo

    Reply
  5. Katherine Swarts

     /  December 29, 2018

    Thank you all, Martha, Jan, and Jo! I’m glad you agree with me that this post is very important: please help spread the word by sharing it with your peers and mailing lists!

    Reply
  6. THIS. So much this! Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Katherine Swarts

     /  January 16, 2019

    Thanks, Pam! You can sign up to follow my blog (and other helpful postings on effective living) at https://www.positivecontentfactory.com/sign-up-for-more/.

    -Katherine

    Reply
  1. How Not to Feel Guilty About Your Weaknesses | Strength for the Weary

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  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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