Faith and mental illness: Churches open up on treatment

For many, faith and psychiatry had long been viewed as mortal enemies. Sigmund Freud famously saw religion as an “illusion” and a “neurosis,” and he described himself as a nonbeliever. Many Christians, on the other hand, viewed mental illness as a form of moral weakness that could be addressed only with prayer, inner strength and the grace of God. Psychiatry as a treatment was seen as undermining belief.

The rise of medicines to treat mental illness added another level of suspicion for many: Was medicine changing a person’s nature? Was it doing away with the traditional role of religion? On the other side, research has also shown the mental health community that faith can provide emotional benefits.

The relationship between faith and mental illness is complex, and if some say the psychiatric community needs to do more to recognize the positive aspects of religious faith, others – many of them believers – say the churches must do more to reduce the stigma around mental illness and to promote the role of churches in helping members use modern methods to deal with psychological and emotional troubles.

But there are also controversies over how Christian counselors should use therapeutic practices, for example when it comes to dealing with gays and lesbians who have conflicts over their faith and sexual orientation. There is also a school of biblically-based therapy called “nouthetic counseling” that believes in pastoral counseling based on scripture and focusing on sin. Nouthetic counseling rejects mainstream psychology and psychiatry.

Why it matters

About 1 in 4 Americans suffer from mental illness of some form each year, with about 17 percent saying they have been diagnosed with depression. The rate among believers is likely to be the same. In addition, many sufferers seek solace in their faith, and religious communities need to be prepared to help them.

Background

The suicide of Rick Warren’s son in 2013 shocked the popular pastor’s followers and the public, but it also revealed a growing awareness within Christianity about the importance of dealing with mental illness. This openness to medical and psychiatric treatment is new, but some say churches still need to do more.

Matthew Warren was 27 when he took his own life on April 5, and in a statement Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, said their son had suffered from depression all of his life. The Warrens said they had used counseling and medication as well as prayer to help Matthew. But their son still struggled and was finally overcome by “a momentary wave of despair.”

The Warrens’ willingness to recognize their son’s mental illness and to use all means available to treat it is a significant reminder of how far Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have come in embracing the principles and practices of psychiatric treatment, including medication.

Articles and blog posts

Resources

Organizations

  • American Association of Christian Counselors

    The American Association of Christian Counselors has more than 50,000 members and is the principal professional association of Christian counselors.

  • The National Alliance on Mental Health

    The NAMI posts links to faith-based organizations that deal with mental illness.

  • Mental Health Ministries

    The website of Mental Health Ministries posts links to mental health resources offered by a variety of faith groups.

  • Citizens Commission on Human Rights

    The Citizens Commission on Human Rights was established as an independent body by the Church of Scientology in 1969 “to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights and to clean up the field of mental healing.” The commission maintains a museum in Los Angeles and has chapters in 16 states and 34 countries. Contact through the website.

National Sources

  • James Davies

    James Davies is a  senior lecturer in social anthropology and psychotherapy at Roehampton University in London and a  psychotherapist. He wrote an article in the winter/spring 2011 edition of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin“The Rationalization of Suffering,” about the role of suffering and faith in therapy.

     

  • Susan Gregg-Schroeder

    The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder is a United Methodist minister in San Diego and coordinator of Mental Health Ministries, an effort that grew from her own experience of depression. She is the author of a paper, “Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Churches Can Respond.” She is based in San Diego, Calif.

  • Nancy Kehoe

    Nancy Kehoe is a psychologist and a Catholic nun in Belmont, Mass. She is the author of Wrestling With Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness and the Journey to Wholeness

    Contact: 617-484-7387.
  • Dr. Harold Koenig

    Dr. Harold Koenig is a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health. He wrote the white paper for the Department of Health and Human Services on faith-based responses to natural disasters and terrorism.

  • Kenneth Pargament

    Kenneth Pargament is a professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. His research addressed religious beliefs in various traditions and health. He also researched how the elderly who struggle with their religious beliefs and hold negative perceptions about their relationships with God and life meaning have an increased risk of death, even after controlling for physical and mental health and demographic characteristics. Among other research, he has studied religious coping and the mental health of Hindus in the U.S., spirituality and coping with trauma, spirituality in children with cystic fibrosis, and religion as a source of stress, coping and identity among Jewish adolescents. He can also speak about the relationship between atheism and mental health.

  • Frank Page

    Frank Page is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His adult daughter Melissa killed herself in 2009, and his book Melissa: A Father’s Lessons From a Daughter’s Suicide examines the biblical truths that have sustained him since the tragedy. Contact through Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, vice president for convention relations.

  • Matthew Stanford

    Matthew Stanford is a professor of psychology, neuroscience and biomedical studies at Baylor University and an expert on mental illness and the church. Stanford is the author of Grace for

    the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. He also co-authored a 2009 study, “The effects of mental illness on families within faith communities,”  published in 2011 in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

  • Ed Stetzer

    Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He was formerly the executive director of LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the world’s largest suppliers of Christian products and services. Through LifeWay, he conducted research on American evangelicals. He is also an expert on church planting and blogs on a variety of subjects about American evangelicalism for Christianity Today.

Regional Sources

In the Northeast

  • Kathryn Green-McCreight

    Kathryn Greene-McCreight is a research associate at Yale Divinity School and the author of Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. Contact through Baker Publishing Group.

  • Sonya Starr

    Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation, Md., was a panelist at the June 2013 annual conference of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The session title was “Faith Communities: A Help or a Hindrance?”

  • Barbara C. Crafton

    Barbara C. Crafton is an Episcopal priest in Metuchen, N.J., and the author of Jesus Wept: When Faith & Depression Meet. She manages an online mental health site called The Geranium Farm.

  • Rebekah Lyons

    Rebekah Lyons writes about womanhood, purpose and mental health on her website, RebekahLyons.com, and is the author of Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning (April 2013), in which she discusses her struggles with anxiety and depression. Lyons and her husband, Gabe Lyons, co-founded Q Ideas, a nonprofit organization that helps Christian leaders “winsomely engage culture.” They live in New York City. Contact her through Tyndale House Publishers.

  • Dr. Ronald Pies

    Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University. In his book The Judaic Foundations of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (2010), he explores how Jewish teachings align with cognitive behavioral therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy. Contact 315-464-5440, piesr@upstate.edu.

  • Joel Scandrett

    Anglican priest and assistant professor of historical theology at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. In a 2009 article for Christianity Today, he wrote about his mixed feelings regarding antidepressants. Contact jscandrett@tsm.edu.

  • Edward T. Welch

    A counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. He is also adjunct professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa. Welch is the author of Depression: Looking Up From the Stubborn Darkness.

    Contact: 215-887-5511.

In the South

  • Dr. Dan G. Blazer

    Dr. Dan G. Blazer is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. His clinical interests include psychiatry and religion, and he is the author of The Age of Melancholy: “Major Depression” and Its Social Origins and Freud vs. God: How Psychiatry Lost Its Soul & Christianity Lost Its Mind.

    Contact: 919-684-4128.
  • Matt Rogers

    Matt Rogers is a former co-pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship at Virginia Tech and is the author of Losing God: Clinging to Faith Through Doubt and Depression. He now lives in Charlotte, N.C. Contact through his website.

  • Dr. William P. Wilson

    Professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and professor of pastoral counseling at Carolina Evangelical Divinity School. Wilson wrote the chapter on religion and psychoses for the Handbook of Religion and Mental Health. Contact through the Institute of Christian Growth, which he directs.

  • Jim Hightower

    Jim Hightower is minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala. Twice a year, the church offers a 12-week education program for families of the mentally ill.

    Contact: 256-428-9400.
  • Monica Selby

    A blogger in Memphis, Tenn. Her essay “Should Christians Take Antidepressants?” appeared on a Christianity Today blog in November 2011.

  • Jimmy Tilley

    Jimmy Tilley and his wife, Jane, started a Sunday school class and worship time for mentally ill people at their church, First Baptist of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Jimmy, the group leader, suffers from depression, chronic anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Contact through the church.

    Contact: 205-345-7554.
  • Diana Garland

    Diana Garland, dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, has conducted research about congregational social work and family ministry.

  • Tim Reside

    President of Bright Tomorrows, an interdenominational Christian nonprofit in Tulsa, Okla., that works to educate faith communities about mental illness and provide support to people dealing with  mental health issues. Reside is an ordained minister who has dealt with bipolar disorder for many years. His wife, Nancy, is the group’s secretary-treasurer.

In the Midwest

  • Robert H. Albers

    Distinguished Visiting Professor of Pastoral Care at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Albers co-edited Ministry With Persons With Mental Illness and Their Families (2012).

    Contact: 651-255-6133.
  • Kelly Brill

    The Rev. Kelly Brill is senior minister at Avon Lake United Church of Christ in Avon Lake, Ohio. In 2012, after officiating the previous summer at funerals for five people who had killed themselves, Brill worked with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to offer a free series of classes for friends and relatives of people suffering from mental illness.

  • Dr. Syed Arshad Husain

    Dr. Syed Arshad Husain is professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Husain wrote a chapter on religion and mental health from the Muslim perspective for the Handbook of Religion and Mental Health.

  • John Piper

    John Piper served for more than three decades as senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and is now chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. His many books include When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God — and Joy.

    Contact: 612-338-7653.
  • Paul Regan

    President of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, a professional organization based in Batavia, Ill.

  • Amy Simpson

    Editor at Christianity Today and the author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (March 2013). She writes from the experience of having a mother with schizophrenia. Simpson lives in Illinois. Contact through her blog.

  • Michael R. Zedek

    Rabbi Michael R. Zedek is senior rabbi of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago. He wrote a chapter on religion and mental health from the Jewish perspective for the Handbook of Religion and Mental Health.

In the West

  • Sally Barlow

    Sally Barlow is a psychology professor at Brigham Young University. She co-authored a chapter on religion and mental health from the Mormon perspective for the Handbook of Religion and Mental Health.

  • Elyse Fitzpatrick

    A conference speaker and counselor at her church in Southern California. She is a proponent of nouthetic counseling and is a co-author of Will Medicine Stop the Pain?: Finding God’s Healing for Depression, Anxiety & Other Troubling Emotions. Contact through her website.

  • Kathleen J. Greider

    Professor of practical theology, spiritual care and counseling at Claremont School of Theology and professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University. Greider is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and is the author of Much Madness Is Divinest Sense: Wisdom in Memoirs of Soul Suffering.

  • Aaron Kheriaty

    Dr. Aaron Kheriaty is the director of residency training and medical education in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, and founding director of the university’s Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum. He wrote The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again.

  • T.M. Luhrmann

    T.M. Luhrmann is an anthropology professor at Stanford University and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With GodIn an April 13, 2013, New York Times op-ed essay, she describes herself as a secular observer of evangelical congregations and says “one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.” The essay is titled “When God Is Your Therapist.” She has worked with psychotic homeless women, many who claimed God was their only friend.

  • Mark McMinn

    Psychology professor at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., where he also directs the Faith Integration program in the clinical psychology graduate department. McMinn is the author of Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling.

  • John Ortberg

    Senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. He has a doctorate in psychology, and his many books include (as co-author) Coping With Depression (2004) and Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (2014). He wrote “Questions that Faith Asks,” an essay for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

    Contact: 650-323-8600.

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