Faith & Mental Illness

by Tova Kreps, LCSW, President & Co-Founder

A recent question sent to our Wellspring radio show asked, “Does having a mental disorder mean a person has little faith in God?” Sadly, this question reflects a stigma still present among Christians regarding mental illness. Disregarding the word “illness”, it appears that many Christians believe that mental illness is a spiritual failure rather than an organic illness.

In fact, 48% of Christians agree with the statement, “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.”

But in the realm of physical illness, research reveals that, “Healing prayer is being used more as a complementary treatment rather than as an alternative one.”

Do people who have mental illnesses lack faith? Maybe, maybe not. But their state of faith is not likely the cause of their mental illness. Mental illness is a medical diagnosis given when the emotions, behaviors and/or thoughts of a person prevent him/her from functioning normally.

People are complicated, and the causes of mental illnesses are a multitude, just like physical illnesses. Our brains can have genetic predispositions, brain altering experiences such as trauma, and organic problems such as tumors. Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are affected by our upbringing, habits, nutrition, physical health, social connections, environment and yes, spirituality.

So, for instance, anxiety is a normal, God-given emotion which helps people to have caution in light of potential danger. Phobia is anxiety that is so disproportionate to its source that it incapacitates a person, perhaps causing a panic attack affecting even the ability to breath. Both the causes of anxiety and the cures can be varied and complex. Prayer may in fact be one means of reducing anxiety, scripture may be of comfort or give insight, behavioral techniques may reduce it, therapeutic work on root causes may help, and anti-anxiety medication may allow for better functioning in order to utilize these other methods of cure. People are complicated.

Similarly, sadness and grief are helpful emotions that help us to honor and adjust to a loss. Depression, however, can be sadness gone awry into hopelessness. Can hope in God help us “pull out of” depression? Certainly. God’s Word and His presence may comfort, encourage and lift depression. But God may also heal depression through the patient support of loved ones, physical exercise, altered schedules, new behavioral or thought habits and/or anti-depressants. It is also possible that God could leave depression as the “thorn in the flesh” of a believer, keeping His loved one close to Him for greater purposes. There are a number of great theologians and missionaries who fall in this category, such as Martin Luther.

When we patiently love and pray for those with mental illnesses, respect the complicated origins, limit our pat spiritual advice, and support people with the same encouragement that we give to those with medical illnesses, then the love of God is seen among us.

Those with mental illness may not have a lack of faith, but they certainly need faith to face their challenge with the help of God through His Word, through professionals, and through others.