Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Church and mental illness

How do you tell your pastor that your daughter comes home every day and makes herself vomit because she thinks she is fat? How do you share with your Sunday school class that you don’t have money for groceries because your husband is too depressed to get out of bed? How do you tell your prayer group that your teenage son talks to himself or that you struggle with thoughts of suicide? It should not be hard. After all, churches are places of refuge. Church members are spiritual families. Still, speaking about mental health is more difficult than it seems.

Pastor Robert Moreri of Salvation Reformed Church in Gaborone says it can all start with a conversation. “It is a conversation. And it is really up to the leadership of a church to start that conversation. Undoubtedly, there are people in the church who want to have the conversation, but the leaders are the ones who can get it off the ground. I recommend perhaps a sermon series on mental health issues or on particular biblical characters that struggled with mental health. If the clergy, the ministry staff, ministry leaders and volunteers are trained to recognize mental health issues, then that is a good foundation. Moreover, everyone needs to be able to recognize if an individual’s problems are more than spiritual and may require mental health care. Everybody can recognize mental health care problems and then they move the individual on to more specialized ministries and trained individuals within the church. And ultimately, it allows the person to access some level of therapeutic support for free. Mental health care is extremely expensive, finances are a huge barrier to people getting to care. So if a church can provide that kind of support and ongoing care, the person only has to access maybe one mental health care provider, and that really takes a burden off of them as well.”

Pastor Moreri’s contanace bucks the trend. Spirituality places the mind above the body : mind over matter. What this has created is a divide between body and soul — a focus on the care of the soul in our churches, with little attention given to how the health of mind, body, and soul are integrated. This has meant that Christians overlook the prevalence of mental illness in their churches.  One in four Batswana suffer from some kind of mental illness in any given year. Many look to their church for spiritual guidance in times of distress. However, they are unlikely to find much help on Sunday mornings.

Gaborone based clinical psychologist, Bame Mophuting says, “We need to acknowledge the reality of mental illness. It is in fact an illness. For too long, people in the church have attached all mental illness to a spiritual attack or a lack of faith. Yes, we need to pray. Yes, we need to take our thoughts captive but just like a diabetic patient needs insulin and someone with a broken leg might need physical therapy, a person with mental illness may need medication and therapy. People need to normalize talking about mental health challenges. There’s a stigma with mental health. It is one of those things that is talked about only in whispers. But if so many people in our congregations are suffering and going through it, why can’t we mention it within a sermon? The Church should be a place in which people can be honest about their needs without fear of condemnation or stigmatization.”

The prevailing culture of silence along with misguided attitudes and erroneous expectations often cause suffering believers to feel shamed, blamed and very unsupported. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, pray it away,’ you know, ‘Pray the depression away, God can heal you,’ and everything, ‘God can heal you, and you can pray it away, but sometimes God sends people, sends solutions and sends therapists and counselors. Individuals engaging clergy for assistance are equivalently ill to those seeking out psychiatrists. They are people with very serious mental health care problems but they don’t walk in and say, “I woke up today and I think I’m bipolar.” They say “I’m having spiritual problems. I’m having a relational problem. I’m having financial issues.” They talk about the same things as anybody else coming to a pastor for help. They just aren’t aware that a mental health problem is at the root of their problems. Religious groups aspire to be agents of psychological and spiritual healing. Yet frequently they stigmatize people who suffer from mental health conditions or problems as sinful, demonically influenced, and weak-willed. Depression, anxiety, psychosis, and addiction are treated as symptoms of sin, and people who suffer from them are offered religious remedies that often do little to help, or make things worse, because they fail to address underlying psychological or medical causes. Additionally, religious fear- and control- based teachings can be so psychologically damaging as to create mental health disorders in otherwise healthy individuals or exacerbate latent and pre-existing conditions in vulnerable and sensitive individuals.

Many religions have a solution for when their typical remedies prove ineffective: blame it on the devil (they often try this as a first-line treatment as well). Religious groups often view mental health issues as primarily or partially caused by demons. People suffering from disorders where consciousness and perception are significantly altered, including psychotic disorders, schizophrenia, drug- and medical- induced psychosis, and bipolar disorder are especially likely to be treated as if they are demon-possessed. Symptoms like hearing voices or seeing people and things that aren’t there (verbal and auditory hallucinations), intrusive thoughts about harming oneself or others, multiple self-states (dissociative identity disorder), and suicidality are often viewed as coming from sinister supernatural force.


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