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3 Christian Misconceptions about Mental Illness

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I slept 14 hours last night. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

I want to give you a glimpse of what it’s like to have bipolar disorder by sharing things as they happen. It’s time to dispel some myths and the best way I know to do that is to become much more open with the details of my life.

When I read all the misinformation from Christians condemning other Christians for having mental health problems, it breaks my heart and makes me angry.

Dear Christian, if you have a mental health problem, it’s not because you’re a worse sinner than anyone else. Mental illness is not caused by your sin, nor is it a sin to have mental health problems. Okay? There is no condemnation in Christ (Romans 8:1). Don’t let other Christians make you feel guilty.

With that said, mental illness needs to be treated holistically—physical, mental, and spiritual. We cannot merely pop a pill and hope it makes us well. That’s only treating the physical.

I think there are several misconceptions that happen in the Christian community. Let me address those.

 

Christian Misconception 1: Mental illness is caused by sin and must be treated only on a spiritual level.

This is the most common misconception among Christians, though it comes in various forms. Some think mental illness is caused by sin. Some think it is punishment for sin. Some think it is a sin to have mental illness and we ought to be able to snap out of it at will.

I can understand why people misunderstand. Jesus cast out demons and put people in their right mind, God made Nebuchadnezzar insane for seven years, and so on. People in Jesus’ time apparently thought illnesses were caused by a person’s sin. The disciples wondered about a man born blind. Could he have sinned to cause that or was it because of his parent’s sin? Jesus replied, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins” (John 9:3). That’s clear enough, isn’t it?

Jesus never blamed people for having an illness of any kind. Then why was this baby born blind? Jesus said, “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3). Then he healed the blind man.

Many people never get healed in this lifetime. That doesn’t mean they are sinners or unworthy of healing. Jesus said our illness is so the power of God can be seen in us. Even if we are not healed miraculously, we can still demonstrate the power of God at work in our lives. Paul offers a beautiful explanation: “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

So what does that look like? When we are weak, God’s strength works through us. God gives us the strength and courage to keep going. God gives us grace to maintain a good attitude despite pain, trouble, or ongoing conditions that make life difficult. God gives us the ability to love those who don’t understand our condition. God gives us unexpected blessings to demonstrate his love. These are some of the countless ways God demonstrates his power through our weakness for others to see.

I’ve heard firsthand accounts of Christians whose church has told them to stop taking their medications for depression because it is a spiritual problem and taking medication demonstrates a lack of faith in God to heal them. I’ve also heard of churches forbidding people to seek medical treatment or psychiatric care for their condition. This is wrong and irresponsible. The Bible does not forbid medical treatment. Dr. Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. He traveled with Paul as his personal physician.

Furthermore, God acknowledges that medicine can heal. The Lord wept for Babylon, saying, “Give her medicine. Perhaps she can yet be healed” (Jeremiah 51:8). So clearly God uses medicine as one of his means of healing or treatment. But medicine isn’t the only treatment, which brings us to the next misconception.

 

Christian Misconception 2: Mental illness is only a physical problem and must be treated on a physical level.

In what is perhaps a backlash against being told they are sinners for having a mental health problem, some Christians go to the extreme of saying mental health is ONLY a physical problem and there is no spiritual component at all.

This is what the world believes, and many Christians have accepted the notion that science has the answer for everything. We live in a rational world and people like to seek rational answers, not spiritual ones. Therefore, if someone has a mental health problem, the natural tendency is to seek an answer in science and medicine.

While this is a widespread view, it’s not as damaging as the view that mental illness is only a spiritual problem. At least with this view, people are free to seek medical help—and today’s medical help is very good at stabilizing someone with mental health issues. The main problem is in neglecting to treat the problem on the spiritual and mental levels.

Do yourself a favor and post a note inside your medicine cabinet or directly on your pill bottle that says, “Take with prayer.” We must regularly acknowledge God as our healer. Our hope is in him, not in science. He is both our physician and counselor.

It’s interesting that God describes himself as savior, physician, and counselor because these correspond to the spiritual, physical, and mental aspects of treating mental health problems. Even this indicates God sees a need for working with us on all three levels. It’s not so much that we only have a spiritual problem, but that we can seek spiritual help in treating the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of mental problems.

But what about the mental aspects? This is, after all, a mental problem.

 

Christian Misconception 3: Mental illness is a mental problem and must be treated with talk therapy (counseling).

This is the least prevalent view among the three, but psychiatric care is often the first thing we think of when we think of mental illness. And there are some Christians who are opposed to medicine (or have been told not to take it) who think their only option is to seek counseling.

Don’t get me wrong. Talk therapy can be tremendously helpful. But I have wasted many years and thousands of dollars in counseling that did not help me at all. If your counseling isn’t making measurable progress, with weekly results, then you need to find a different type of counselor.

Instead of regurgitating your past life, looking for explanations for why you are the way you are, you need talk therapy that is results oriented. I recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) because it identifies a specific problem and takes specific steps toward victory. And in case you’re concerned, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is consistent with biblical principles such as taking every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) and fix your thoughts on positive things (Philippians 4:8).

I believe there are many, many cases of depression that can be treated solely with CBT, but we are quick to get relief from our discomfort so we want medicine to fix our problem. I wish CBT was taught in schools because it’s a valuable life skill. You can read more about it in Feeling Good, by David Burns. And there are plenty of resources on the Internet for CBT.

The point here is not to glorify CBT, but to note that changing the way we think is a very important part of managing our mental health. The Bible says so. We can’t just rely on medicine to make us well.

Medicine is beneficial in stabilizing our condition to give us the mental clarity to do the hard work of changing the way we think and doing some spiritual work.

I hope you’re beginning to see why a holistic approach is the best way to treat mental health problems. There’s plenty of help available. Don’t let fear or guilt (especially if it is caused by Christians with misunderstandings of their own) keep you from getting the help you need.

 

I slept 14 hours last night.

I didn’t necessarily realize I was manic, although I was very productive for the past month. When high-speed mania slams on the breaks and hits the wall of depression, I often sleep long and hard during the transition. I’ve been known to sleep around the clock, and one time I slept around the clock for about three days. This is part of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder isn’t something to fear. I’m not a monster. I’m not a worse sinner than anyone else. I just have something wrong with my brain. God chose me for this to display his glory.

It does make it difficult to maintain a job. I’m not lazy, necessarily. I just have irregularities like occasionally sleeping around the clock.

Let me leave you with a bit of hope. I have been doing this awhile now. I’m much more stable than I was. My medication has taken the extremes off my highs and lows. I’ve worked very hard to change the way I think.

Now, depression is marked more by physical symptoms such as extra sleep and low energy. Periods of depression are less likely to cripple me with negative thoughts because I manage those much more closely. And if they do creep in, I know it’s the voice of depression and not the voice of truth.

I cling to God, knowing that this feeling is temporary and I’ll see the light again in due time. Depression is often one of my most spiritual times because I immerse myself in God’s word to make it easier on myself.

Bipolar disorder and other mental health problems are real problems, with real answers. They are treatable (and bearable) when we address the spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the problem.

Let’s extend hope to those who suffer, but let that hope be realistic and balanced.

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