Mental illnesses such as depression have been documented and studied for over 2,000 years. While today’s understanding of mental disorders is far more robust and accurate than early theories, some outdated ideas are still echoed in certain circles, such as the belief that conditions such as depression result from wrongdoing or can be managed simply by thinking happy thoughts.
These misconceptions and myths surrounding mental illnesses can cause many Christians to fear judgment and may prevent them from seeking treatment. Unfortunately, just as neglecting physical health services can have serious long-term consequences, untreated mental disorders can lead to more significant problems.
The Top 5 Christian Myths About Mental Illness
Mental Illness Doesn’t Exist
The idea that mental illnesses don’t exist is one of the biggest roadblocks to seeking professional help. While this stance isn’t present in every church, it’s widespread enough that many Christians living with depression or anxiety can recount a time when they shared their experience with a trusted friend, pastor or priest who told them that mental illness wasn’t real or was a strictly spiritual matter.
Mental illnesses are complex and influenced by a mix of situational, environmental, biological and chemical factors. While there’s still much to be explored and the exact symptoms of a given mental illness may vary slightly from one person to another, the criteria for diagnosing disorders such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder are clearly defined and well-established.
Ancient Greeks attributed depression to demons and imbalances in the body. In the Dark Ages, theologian St. Augustine held that it was a punishment from God and can only be cured through atoning for sins, which often meant steep fines or corporal punishment. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many believed that depression could be fixed by applying logic and reason to faulty thinking.
Today’s mental health professionals have a much more robust understanding of illnesses. However, theories that connect disorders such as depression and anxiety with sin or a lack of self-discipline are still integral parts of the framework that many base their personal beliefs regarding mental illness on.
The fact is that mental illness is real and has a measurable impact on the brain’s ability to function normally. While it may impact someone’s faith journey, its root is biological, not spiritual.
Depression Is a Sign of Weak Faith
Among the most common beliefs held by Christians, and perhaps most damaging, is that mental illnesses such as depression are a sign that the individual lacks faith. Well-meaning believers may even point to Scriptures such as Psalm 34:17, which speaks of deliverance for those who ask God for help, or Psalm 30:11, a verse in which King David praises God for turning his “wailing into dancing.”
The problem with drawing these parallels is that these verses, along with other principles drawn about mental health in the Bible, is that they aren’t referring to mental illnesses. Many verses pulled from the Bible on mental health are applicable to navigating difficult situations, but they don’t speak to mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, depression or bipolar disorder.
Mental illness isn’t a sign of weak faith any more than a broken bone, autoimmune disorder or virus is. Treating mental illness as a sin problem rather than a health problem may prevent many Christians from seeking help or even acknowledging treatable conditions.
All Mental Health Issues Can Be Prayed Away
Another common myth is that mental illnesses will go away if the individual prays enough. While God may choose to divinely heal any physical or mental illness, God also provides those who are sick with doctors, scientists and mental health professionals who have the skills and understanding necessary to help people successfully manage their condition.
Just as broken bones or cancer need to be treated with more than just prayer, mental health disorders need professional interventions. For many people, talk therapy is an important part of treatment to help them work through trauma or chronic stress, which can trigger or worsen mental illness.
Emotional or environmental factors often play into depression, but in most cases, there’s an underlying biological issue. This is why two people may experience similar events but only one develops depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors have found that many factors cause or contribute to depression, including genetics, problems with neurotransmitters in the brain, medications, certain medical conditions and parts of the brain not functioning properly. Just as people with high blood pressure or diabetes may have to take medication to improve their bodies’ function, medication can often be helpful in optimizing the brain’s function.
My Community Won’t Understand My Mental Health Needs
Mental illnesses are surprisingly prevalent. Nearly one in five Americans live with an anxiety disorder in a given year. About 15 million adults have social anxiety disorder, about 19 million have a phobia, 7.7 million have PTSD and over 16 million are living with major depressive disorder. Mental illnesses exist in every demographic regardless of age, ethnicity, income or gender.
While mental health issues may not be talked about openly in all circles, chances are that there are plenty of congregants in any given church who know exactly what a panic attack, manic or depressive episode or an obsession or compulsion feels like.
While stigmas and outdated ideas regarding mental illnesses often exist in churches and other religious institutions, the most effective way to combat this is by fostering open communication about mental health needs. For many people, conditions such as depression and anxiety are part of the human experience. Even with effective treatment, mental illnesses may be lifelong struggles. Recognizing mental health issues, supporting others’ pursuits of treatment and ultimately remembering that God is near and God’s grace reaches to the depths of any struggle—mental or physical—creates a safe environment where Christians can support one another’s mental health.
People with Mental Illnesses are Unstable and Unfit for Church Leadership
This misconception may stem from the old idea that depression or anxiety is the result of unconfessed sin, making the individual unfit for church leadership or responsibilities. The reality is that not only do mental illnesses not disqualify an individual from church leadership, but they may make them more effective, empathetic leaders.
It may be true that some people may need to back off some of their commitments when they’re experiencing deep depression. However, those who are seeking treatment or are otherwise effectively managing mental health disorders can bring a valuable perspective that makes them good leaders. Mental illness and Christianity aren’t at odds with one another, and it’s entirely possible to lead a life of service and commitment to the Church while still dealing with depression or anxiety.
How to Get Help for Mental Illness
Christians seeking treatment for mental health disorders have multiple options available to them.
As information on mental illnesses has become more widely available, the demand for professional counselors in local churches has increased. Many churches have counselors on staff who are licensed and credentialed through organizations such as the National Association of Christian Counselors.
It’s important to note that in some states, such as Florida, counselors and therapists are required to be licensed in order to practice. Other states have far more lenient rules or minimal licensure requirements. Those seeking professional help for their mental illness should do their research and consider factors such as a therapist’s education and credentials, areas of expertise and number of years practicing.
A church counselor may be a convenient option, but not every church counselor has the experience and training necessary to address serious mental illnesses such as PTSD, depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
For those whose church doesn’t have a trained counselor on staff, or the counselor doesn’t have the necessary experience and qualifications, seeking help outside of the church setting is the best option. Healthcare institutions such as FHE deliver medically integrated personalized treatment for those who experience mental illness or addiction. FHE’s tailored approach supports holistic wellness that addresses the individual’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs.
To learn more about FHE’s mental healthcare program or to speak with an intake specialist, call (855) 656-0357.