Christian stigma surrounding mental illness

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know that my dad suffered from schizophrenia. As a result, in late 1998, my father stopped attending work (and by default, was considered abandoning his job after not calling in sick for three days). His illness was so severe that he wasn’t able to work. However, he heavily became involved in our Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church.

Quick background before I continue: One of the main sticking points from IFB beliefs is salvation by faith. (Romans 10:9-10) Basically, all you do is believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God and that he was crucified, died, and rose again. The emphasis here is on BELIEVING. (There’s a reason I’m saying this other than sounding like I’m proselytizing.) The more I became involved in the church, the more I found it was salvation by works (works-based salvation). The problem? IFBers weren’t practicing what they were preaching.

Back to the story: The church was in the middle of a building program and the pastor – we’ll call him Pastor B – heavily called on his members to help out during their free time. My father was so dedicated – he was severely mentally ill now – that he rode my bike for 10 MILES in the RAIN to help put up sheetrock. Then a Sunday or two later, Pastor B tells me, "You know, your dad should really be working. The Bible says that a man who doesn’t work doesn’t eat. You know what I think? I don’t think he was ever saved to begin with."

Talk about judgment. I was shocked beyond belief to hear my pastor tell me that he thought my father wasn’t a born-again Christian. The Bible also says God doesn’t look on the outside appearance, but looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) Pastor B took advantage of my father’s dedication, but judged him as “unsaved” because he wasn’t working. IFBers don’t believe in "losing" salvation, which means that you fall out of favor with God and won’t go to heaven unless you do something to correct it. They view losing salvation as works-based, which – as I said before – is contrary to their beliefs.

My uncle, who really means well, encourages me to keep praying, trusting, and believing God as if my depression/bipolar is a result of a lack of faith on my part. (While all those things are well and good, it’s like expecting my Lamictal to just make everything all better.) Funny thing, I go to Christian counseling and my counselor – who reads this blog – Hi, C! – has flat out told me that Christianity is not a cure-all for depression. (Or maybe it was my current pastor. I can’t keep track these days.) I became a Christian, hoping to save myself from depression and suicidal thoughts. I wasn’t “delivered” like some people are, but in the midst of these trials, my faith has given me a reason to keep going. For me, it helps to feel like I’m alive for something bigger than myself. Atheists call religion a crutch. It’s a pretty bad analogy. Crutches serve an important purpose: to allow healing. If my “crutch” paves the path for me to heal in more ways than just my depression, then I’ll be happy to have something to lean on for the rest of my life.

Many Christians who suffer from mental illness face similar situations. I read this article on Today’s Christian Woman from 2004 and it seems like the woman in the article had a ton of support from those around her. It sounds like she didn’t run into very many problems at her church either. I feel confident in saying her case is a rarity. Christians who suffer from any kind of mental illness are "demon-possessed, " "don’t read the Bible enough," "don’t pray enough," "don’t believe enough," "aren’t saved enough," yadda yadda yada. There’s every excuse out there to make those who are mentally ill feel subhuman.

I hate to say this, but those who aren’t religious tend to be more compassionate toward those with mental illness. It’s interesting that the religion that teaches “judge not and you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1) is one of the most judgmental religions of all.

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11 Comments

  1. stacy said,

    June 30, 2007 at 6:36 am

    Sometimes the church just doesn’t make sense. We used to have friends, who like us, were very involved leaders in the church. She was morbidly obese with severe health problems. Her doctors wanted to try several things at different times….medicines to stop the absorption of fat, stomache reduction, etc. HE refused to allow any of it because if she was “right with God” the problems wouldn’t exist or would take care of themselves.

  2. December 5, 2007 at 3:04 am

    Overcoming depression is a slow and difficult process and Christianity has nothing in common with it.
    I wish you good luck.

  3. Tim V said,

    July 31, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    maybe it has to do with being obedient to God’s word ?
    King David “a man after God’s heart” clearly suffered from depression at times. So, it may well just be natural to be depressed depending on the situation/reasons that cause it. The better question may be “how do we overcome depression ? “

  4. Tim V said,

    August 1, 2008 at 5:46 am

    In dealing with depression it is very important to have a friend or family member that you can count on for love and support. My daughter and my father fill those roles for me.

  5. michelle said,

    November 17, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Hi, i feel very sorry to hear about that. I experience something like yours. but one thing, no matter how pastor act or how christians do not act like one, we cannot tarnish our faith toward God all these while just because of one person. We know well some pastors are hypocrites, that misuse power and authority. God is always right, ‘Never put trust on men’ because they will all disappoint you, but you could always trust God. wish you well. Bless

  6. michelle said,

    November 17, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Hi, i feel very sorry to hear about that. I experience something like yours. but one thing, no matter how pastor act or how christians do not act like one, we cannot tarnish our faith toward God all these while just because of one person. We know well some pastors are hypocrites, that misuse power and authority. God is always right, ‘Never put trust on men’ because they will all disappoint you, but you could always trust God. wish you well. Bless

  7. Robin W. said,

    February 4, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I can relate because I am a 26 year old Christian man on disability for depression. I have been scolded to my face by many so called Christian people that I am a dumpy, frumpy, lazy bum who needs to be locked in a padded cell away from people. THIS IS WRONG because number 1, I am NOT a violent person, number 2, I need human interaction to help with my depression. I am also an alcoholic who has just stopped drinking not too long ago, and the people in AA half the time are not very supportive, they too accuse me of being lazy and unmotivated. Also 90 percent of the mental health providers I have seen tell me that Im lazy and need a kick in the butt to get motivated, that really hurts because I have been trying to force myself to get better and it does not work. those providers are wrong as well. In conclusion I relate to everything you said in your story, especially the fact that alot of Christians judge when Jesus says not to judge.

  8. Simon said,

    February 5, 2009 at 1:08 am

    I have been a believer for around 33 years and have struggled with depression for all of this time. For a long time I was not receiving any treatment and was very misunderstood by my peers. Eventually I received treatment and still take an antidepressant and likely will always need to. I have been able to graduate from Bible college and have been in leadership in several congregations. I have a friend who teaches at a Bible college and has also been in the pastorate. There will always be those who will not understand or relate. Our responsibility is to seek help. It may take some time before the proper help or medicaiton is found but there is help to be found. Don’t ever forget that God is completely aware of our situation even when we don’t “feel” Him. King DAvid had his times when he was down, but he was not clinicaly depressed. This real depression may not go away with more prayer or praise or Bible reading, although these, like chicken soup, couldn’t hurt. Sometimes when I speak I tell the congregation that if someone is struggling with depression that they should make it a priortiy to seek help, since it is possible that my message may only weigh these people down rather than ministering to them. Others simply get some good sleep when I speak. It is okay to get better even if it takes medication. Blessings, Simon

  9. February 9, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Wow, Robin. I’m sorry to hear this. I especially suggest that a) find another church with supportive people and b) find another AA group to attend that won’t give you grief. You’re suffering enough as it is; you don’t need people throwing rocks at you after you’ve already been wounded.

  10. Denise said,

    April 23, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    This is a very insightful post and it really strikes a chord with me. Thanks for your honesty.

  11. Donna said,

    June 2, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Very interesting article. I have been dealing with this very thing. I am a christian and bipolar. I recently went through a very bad depression and we wound up talking to our pastor, we are independent fundamental baptists, who told us that bipolar doesn’t exist. It seems since he found out about my bipolar that he has been preaching hard against it going so far as to say that if you are depressed you can’t have the holy spirit (which would mean you aren’t saved). This has been so hard for us, my husband is in Bible College and has been called to preach and it looks like we’ll be in american missions helping struggling churches here in our country. We know there are a lot of pastors who have this mind set and we’ll have to deal with it some but we never thought our pastor thought that way. Especially since his mom had schizophrenia…that throws a big “HUH”? in the mix now doesn’t it. So we are pushing forward and don’t discuss my health with him anymore. We won’t be at this church forever but it sure does make life difficult while we are. I can fully understand people being turned off to some of the hypocrisy in the independent fundamental baptist churches and it’s so unfortunate. It’s often said that baptists are the only ones who beat people while they are down instead of building them up and helping them. I have experienced this myself and it is sad. But so many great people in the Bible suffered from depression and if God allows cancer, birth defects and other things, why wouldn’t he allow mental illness? It’s just another disease that was caused by the fall of man and our sin nature. I really think it just scares people so they want to put it in a box and label it “SIN”. My response to that is, “If that’s my sin, then yours is your diabetes or bad eyesight, etc.” We must help one another as christians, not alienate each other. Thank you for your candid post. May God bless you.


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