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Despite medical and scientific advances in how we understand and treat mental illness, people who live with it continue to face stigmatization. This can occur in various contexts and can take different forms. One example is the notion that mental illness is a sign of “spiritual weakness.” Whether overt or indirect, this message can keep people with mental illness from taking advantage of all the healing supports available to them.
But why is mental illness not a sign of spiritual weakness? We put this question before FHE Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Beau A. Nelson. A graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Dr. Nelson was a keynote speaker at FHE’s first “Hope Becomes Healing” conference. The event brought together faith leaders from different traditions and denominations for more instruction and tools for addressing mental health and addiction issues.
In a recent interview, Dr. Nelson reflected on spiritually understanding mental illness, as well as the supportive role that churches can play in assisting in the healing process for people with mental illness. He also addressed two common misconceptions that reinforce the view that mental illness is a spiritual weakness….
Mental Health and Spirituality
Mental health and spirituality are interconnected. Research cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) associates many benefits with an active spiritual and religious life. They include things like:
- a community that offers a sense of belonging, social support, and connection
- rituals that help people cope with difficult experiences and give a sense of routine, structure, and stability
- teachings that encourage healthy practices like forgiveness and gratitude
- mindfulness that can inspire meaning and self-expression
- self-awareness and a sense of connection with oneself and one’s surroundings
The Church and Mental Illness
While there are many mental health benefits of faith and spirituality, they tell only part of the story about the relationship between churches and mental illness. Historically, that relationship has been a conflicted one—mainly on account of “fear and a lack of understanding,” Dr. Nelson said. “It’s possible—from a place of not knowing about mental illness—to label it as evil.”
Historical Fears Towards Mental Illness
As further explanation for how this can happen, he gave a quick history lesson: “In the past, religion was science. Religion was the vehicle by which primitive people made sense of their world, and unfortunately, they missed the mark from what we know about health and wellness.”
In other words, in the absence of scientific knowledge, people filled in the gaps with their own explanations. The belief that mental illness was a spiritual or moral weakness was just one misguided effort, (among many others across the centuries), to make sense of and control one’s world. As another illustration from the world of medicine, Dr. Nelson pointed to surgeons in the 1900s who, prior to the advent of germ theories, did not wash their hands between surgeries.
Different Ideas About Mental Illness in Church
Of course, the church consists of not one religious expression but many. “Given the wide expression, what might be considered evil in one community is considered a blessing in another,” Dr. Nelson said. “In some communities, if they can heal it then the person gets better, and if the person doesn’t get better, they have to explain it, maybe blaming the person, family, or some other evil.”
Why Mental Illness Is Not Spiritual Weakness
As for why mental illness is not spiritual weakness, “this isn’t a spiritual shortcoming—it’s a biological issue,” Dr. Nelson said. “There is no spiritual weakness. God meets us in our weakness and does not judge us by our works or moods … We have the minds that God gave us, just like bodies.” And, just as some people’s minds have been stigmatized in religious communities, so have some people’s bodies, Dr. Nelson said. As a case in point, he referred to the Old Testament belief that menstruating women were “unclean” and therefore must be cast out of the community during menstruation.
The belief that mental illness is spiritual weakness is false for another reason, too, according to Dr. Nelson. It is based on the fallacy that there is a divide between mental and physical health. The church like the rest of society has often maintained this false separation. Dr. Nelson explained that only until quite recently did we understand that physical and mental health are intimately connected and need to be understood and treated as integrated parts.
“Because we haven’t understood mental illness in its full expression, physical and mental health were separated,” Dr. Nelson said. “We can do the same with spiritual health and see there being something wrong with a mental illness, as in the person who has it must have done something wrong.”
Mental Illness and Spiritual Warfare
Related to the view that mental illness is spiritual weakness is the belief that mental illness is a matter of spiritual warfare. Here Dr. Nelson was careful to reiterate that “everyone is free to believe whatever they like” with respect to mental illness and spiritual warfare, but “one thing we know is that it’s important for people to have access to all of the support they can get.”
The problem, therefore, is not praying for healing or viewing mental illness as a form of spiritual warfare. The problem is viewing mental illness exclusively in these terms. Here is how Dr. Nelson put it:
The issue is when the situation is far more biological and needs treatment from a medical standpoint. That’s when there’s a gap in knowledge that’s available … if we are limited in our understanding, that should not be a barrier for people to seek alternative methods of healing. Sometimes it’s our limited understanding to know what’s going on that can prevent healing. Sometimes we need to broaden our understanding to truly help someone with a mental illness.
“Anxiety Is a Sin”
Some of us have heard this refrain in church circles, often as an interpretation of the many commands in Scripture to not be anxious or afraid. It is also another variation of the false notion that mental illness is spiritual weakness—the idea being that if you are anxious, you are not obeying God’s commands.
Actually, though, these many divine exhortations to not be anxious or afraid reflect just how common anxiety is, according to Dr. Nelson:
The idea is that our spiritual texts are telling us that anxiety is a common problem, and that God is mindful of communicating a message that you can get through this. When the Bible mentions fear and anxiety a lot of different times, it’s because everyone is dealing with it … It’s not saying don’t get treatment. God is saying, ‘I’m still here for you as you go through this.” Being afraid is a normal part of a faith journey.
The bottom line for churches and religious communities when they encounter anxiety in their midst: “We may need to emulate Christ in being compassionate as He was and not necessarily pointing the finger of sin,” Dr. Nelson said. “That’s a prayerful discussion each one of us needs to have if we find ourselves judging others … Hopefully we can be a help in their healing process rather than judge.”