Reprinted from "Stigma and Discrimination" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 23
A few months ago, an acquaintance told me about her mother-in-law, Cynthia*, who had been found to have bipolar disorder. In her late 50s, and always having been a competent person, Cynthia had a great deal of trouble coming to terms with this. She refused to accept the diagnosis or to take the medicaitons prescribed by her doctor. She was hospitalized several times. Failing to cope, her like — and her family’s life—was in turmoil.
The evenagelical faith she followed did not encourage her in her battle. The general opinion she had grown up with was that emotional problems were an indication of not “being right with God”— the result of sin. In her mind, and in the minds of many others in her church, her illness was not a medical issue. They believed, as one author wrote, “if a person has ‘the peace of God which passeth all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7) in his life he cannot have emotional conflict. Ultimately…symptoms are spiritual problems.”1
Cynthia’s friend from church told her that taking medications demonstrated a lack of faith. The friend advised her to throw away her pills. Not long after, Cynthia was found wondering the streets of another city, confused and in a daze. She had to be committed to hospital against her will. To this day, she is still in denial, feeling guilt and shame.
Hearing this story saddened me deeply. Being a Christian with bipolar disorder, I know how important my faith is to my well-being and how much I need the support of a church family. I am not alone in this. And medical professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of spirituality to mental health.
Some Christian writers have revealed that a large segment of those identifying themselves as Christians does indeed cling to faulty ideas and judgemental thing, and lacks compassion towards those with mental illness. In spite of overwhelming evidence of biochemical factors in mental illnesses, many well-known, respected writers and evangelists still believe these illnesses are caused by sin and weakness of character—that is, by something that is under our control.2
The very church that preaches Christ’s unconditional love and compassion, in some instances, hurts its most needy members. Some of the dynamics contributing to this irony include:
- The fuzzy line between the psychological and the spiritual
- The fact that one often feels an absence of hope and faith when emotionally ill
- The mistrust of modern medical findings
- Misinterpretation of the Bible
- The biblical concept of demonic possession
- Fear because of misunderstanding and not knowing how to help
At the same time, it’s clear to me that not all Christians stigmatize those with emotional problems. At the United Church I belonged to for 14 years, I was open about my disorder, having decided long ago that if I wanted to help end the stigmas, I myself would have to stop hiding my condition. My church friends read the book and articles I wrote and became familiar with my story. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—I was loved and accepted. I became an active member of the congregation, taking on a number of leadership roles. Only occasionally did I sense some awkwardness with people who were aware of my background but didn’t know me very well.
More recently, I began attending an evangelical church and here, too, I’ve found support. When I let my new pastor know about my problems, he expressed a desire to learn about my disorder.
I haven’t always been a Christian. I know what it is to be ill with, and without, God in my life. But now, during crises, I’m no longer alone when it becomes difficult to hang on. I now have a spiritual lifeline— a living God—in whom I can trust. My faith means everything to me. This is why Cynthia’s story disturbs me. Those who are in the best position to encourage her are causing more suffering.
All of society needs to become better informed about mental disorders. Yet, for members of faith communities, this is especially so because of the important part they play in the emotional care of their members. Pastors and other church leaders desperately need education about mental health issues, so they can encourage—not reject or judge—those with emotional difficulties.
And, they need to know when it’s time to help members of their pastoral community seek medical care.
About the authorMarja is a writer and photographer living in Burnaby. She has written newspaper and magazine articles about mental health issues. Her book, Riding the Roller Coaster: Living with Mood Disorders, describes her life with bipolar disorder and the coping skills she has found helpful
- Solomon, C.R. (1971). Handbook of Happiness (p.48). Denver: Grace Fellowship Press.
- Carlson, D.L. (1994). Why do Christians shoot their wounded? Helping (not hurting) those with emotional difficulties. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press