Spirituality and Mental Illness

- Dr. Chris Summerville D.Min., CPRP

Mental illness and spirituality!! Many people are still uncomfortable mixing the two subjects. But many believers want to see mental illness addressed from a spiritual point of view. In recent years I have seen more workshops on spirituality and mental illness at the various provincial, national, and international mental health conferences that I have attended. This is in keeping with the desire of many consumers to be seen as a whole person: body, mind, heart and spirit.

Spiritual care and pastoral support encourages a holistic approach to health and healing. But unfortunately, according to Dwight L. Carlson, M.D., three attitudes continue to prevail among faith groups. First, we don’t have mental health problems. If any “emotional” or mental health problems appear, simply deny having them. Second, if we can’t achieve the first idea, and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family. Third, if both of the first steps fail, still don’t seek professional help.

I have been a Christian for 38 years, pastored for over 25 years, and the executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society for the last seven years. Over this time I have often seen these same attitudes throughout the faith community. People with mental illness are seen as having a “moral or spiritual problem” or some particular sin in his or her life. Faith groups are generally uncomfortable including people with mental illness. They simple don’t know how to be inclusive because of fear and stigma and, I believe, a misunderstanding of God. We pray publicly for people with cancer or some other physical illness, but rarely will we pray publicly for someone with schizophrenia or depression.

Since the age of eleven I have had to periodically deal with bouts of profound clinical depression. As a teenager, I didn’t know what was going on but I was “scared as hell.” As a pastor I had to hide my depression. Of the five churches that I pastured only two church leaders were “safe” in which I could confide my “torment.”

The Bible itself and church history attest to the reality of mental health and illness problems. Moses, Elijah, Job and Jeremiah struggled with depression. Some thought of suicide such as Elijah (I Kings 19:3-4). Job talked about depression haunting his days and his weary nights being filled with pain (Job 3:23-24).

The Reformer, Martin Luther who wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” in 1527 wrote: “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost.” Luther was subject to recurrent periods of depression. The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon who ignited the fires of the 19th century revival movement struggled so severely with depression that he was forced to be absent from his pulpit for two to three months a year! He told his congregation, “I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go through.”

So, people of faith can experience mental and emotional problems. Abraham Lincoln, a man of faith, confessed to his law partner about his own battle with depression. “I am the most miserable man living.” “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

I have “seen the face of God” in the presence of mental illness and mental health challenges, my own and others. There are seven principles that the Christian faith has taught me as regards spirituality and mental illness. These seven principles are part of my spirituality. 1) God is with us (Mt. 1:23). The God on the mountain is the God in the valley with us. 2) God knows we struggle with pain and frailty in life (Ps. 103:13-14). Life is not fair. 3) God identifies with us in our brokenness (Heb. 2:17-18). 4) God suffers with us with His presence with us in the “valley of the shadow of death” (Rom 8:22-27). 5) God works for good in all things (Rom 8:23). There is a future with hope as we recover. 6) We matter to God no matter what ( Rom 8:1 ). 7) Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:39).

A pastor once confessed that he preached against psychology and psychiatry and taking medication for emotional problems. Then he ended up with a depression so debilitating that he could not get out of bed. The church board was thinking of firing him. His wife convinced him to see a doctor. He took the medication prescribed to him and learned ways to manage his depression and stress from a holistic point of view. He says, “Now the thing that I used to preach against is the thing that has set me free to preach again.”

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