Nearly 50 percent of Christians believe that prayer alone is powerful enough to treat mental illness, according to a recent study. But while psychologists of faith might agree that prayer certainly helps, one expert insists that spiritual disciplines are only one part of a holistic approach to treating mental illness.
The results of that noted survey, published in September by LifeWay Research, revealed that 48 percent of "self-identified born-again, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christians" believe that Bible study and prayer alone can help overcome mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Furthermore, only 21 percent of survey respondents who attend worship services at least once a week said they believed they would be welcomed at most churches if they had a mental health issue.
How can Christians concerned that they or a loved one might be suffering from mental illness discern when it is time to rise from their knees and find a psychologist or psychiatrist?
Dr. Eric L. Johnson, author of Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal, professor of pastoral care at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a participant at "The Gathering on Mental Health and The Church" event hosted Friday (March 28) at Saddleback Church, suggests that the "threshold is crossed when...the normal means of grace" are pursued but the ailment remains.
Johnson, whose presentation for the one-day event in Lake Forest, Calf., is titled "Stigma or Stigmata: Helping the Church Rethink Mental Illness," shared with The Christian Post suggestions for Christians struggling to reconcile mental illness with their faith, and what he believes are the benefits of leaders living with mental illness being transparent about their struggles with those they serve.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
CP: What do you say to a Christian having difficulty reconciling their mental ailments with their faith?
Johnson: When I think of the dark side of the human condition down here, there are three aspects. One of them is sin and Christians are most aware that we can sin and cause problems to ourselves and others. But two other problems that are a part of the challenges down here are suffering, which I think anybody sees that suffering is a part of life, and then also the third category would be damage that can happen to our bodies and souls. A technical term would be biopsychosocial damage. People who have severe mental illness have severe biopsychosocial damage.
That damage is rarely related to personal sin. It has to do with genetic dispositions, growing up in a fallen world, sometimes growing up with severe trauma in their families of origin, things like that. So when they enter into adulthood, they can have this damage, struggling with their thinking processes, their emotions. It's just a part of human fallenness. God wants to be the savior of all us from our sin, but He also wants to be a healer and a comforter to us in our psychological struggles. Some of those struggles will not be resolved in this life, from what we can tell. A person who's born with mental retardation for example, that may not be resolved in this life. So we also have to encourage ourselves that when we get new bodies and when we are set free in heaven from the struggles down here we will experience a much greater life and will be healthy in a way that we're not now.
I also want to add that, of course, part of what Christ wants to do is to overcome sin in our lives and sometimes sin does cause us some struggles and trouble and sorrow and grief and anxiety. That is a part of what I think Jesus provides for us as well, as we learn to overcome our sins, that we'll have a benefit in relieving at least some of the sadness and anxiety that we struggle with in this life.
The problem is, I know people that are not committing sins who struggle with serious mental problems and mental disorders. It's not either or. It's not one of the above. Rather, in the struggles that people have down here, it can be a result of sin, it can be a result suffering and it can be a result of damage, and everybody's different. The mix of that is gonna depend on that particular person and their struggles. That's one reason why it helps to see a pastor or spiritual director or a counselor, to kind of get some guidance for what kind of healing can I expect in this life and what areas of my life do I need to have addressed by Jesus. There's a sense that Jesus can be directly related to all of these areas in providing comfort, help and forgiveness, depending on the problem.
CP: What about pastors and others in leadership positions with a mental illness who may be afraid of public perception?
Johnson: I think it's a systemic issue that the whole Church has to rethink and address. On the one hand, depending on the problem — there's a continuum of problems that people have. All Christians struggle with sin on the one hand, but then there are people who have mild to moderate depression, anxiety, marriage conflicts, all the way to more serious problems like moderate to severe depression, anxiety, personality disorders to some of the more serious problems, [which] would be schizophrenia and bipolar. There's a continuum of problems.
I think one of the things we need to do as a Christian community is to recognize the complexity of this area. Simply having what would be called mental struggles, mental disorders that are not that severe in no way disqualify a person from ministry. They may actually help to give the pastor an understanding of their parishioners who also struggle with such problems. Some of the best ministers I think, are people who have had some struggles in their own life and God has helped them, and not always taken them away but has helped them deal with them in some measure. That gives them a level of empathy and understanding that can be beautiful and helpful for shepherds of other souls in the congregation.
Part of the need in the Church is to destigmatize having problems. As long as we're in this body, we're going to have problems, some of us more than others. The Church of all places ought to be a place where people feel welcomed with such problems. I would hope that in the years to come, pastors will show their leadership by sharing some of their struggles more and more with people.
There's a pastor in Texas who began sharing his story in his own church and publicly in other forums where he shared how he struggled with depression his whole life, and I've know of other ministers who have had such struggles. I think it's really helpful for ministers to do that, but there's a catch-22. Because of the stigmatization that is typically associated with having such struggles, I think we need to help the Church recognize that Christ came for the poor in spirit and for those who mourn and the Kingdom of God is for such people who struggle. But that's going to take a long time.
Personally, one of the reasons I'm so excited about participating in this conference at Saddleback is I feel that there's a growing awareness in the Church … where there seems to be a growing acceptance and recognition that this is actually something to be expected in a fallen world and not something to be denied or avoided.
CP: When do you stop just praying, and seek professional help?
Johnson: We pray unceasingly because God is the lord of everything and He's the lord of our lives whether we feel weak or whether we feel strong. I think a threshold is crossed when it feels like I"m not able to get a handle on this particular problem just with the normal means of grace, you know going to church regularly, hopefully having some personal devotional time everyday, you know doing the kinds of things I need to do to take care of myself, exercise and so on, hopefully having a support group, a small group that I can be real with and transparent and get encouragement from one another… If I'm doing those things and I don't seem to be able to get a handle on a present problem, then maybe I need to take some extra steps to get some help. See my pastor first and then if needed to see maybe a doctor, a psychiatrist, if the problem seems to be not resolvable by the normal means of spiritual care with a pastor or Christian counselor, then maybe I need to seek out medical help.
I have a rule of thumb in the book that I wrote called Foundations for Soul Care. I suggest that there's a spiritual dimension to our problems, an ethical dimension, a psycho-social dimension and a biological dimension to our spiritual struggles in life. What I say to my students and in this book is we should work at the highest levels possible but the lowest levels necessary. So if we can work on our problems just with spiritual interventions and ethical interventions, then let's do so. But if they don't seem to be getting resolved with those resources, which are the most important resources for the Christian, then we need to go into the psycho-social dimension.
Maybe take a look at family of origin issues for example, and maybe patterns of thinking and relating that need to be addressed more substantively with a Christian counselor. If those resources don't seem to relieve the problem, then maybe you need to see a doctor and get some medication that will help the problem.
CP: Anything you want folks to really consider when reading this Q&A?
Johnson: I think the Christian community needs to be working on a Christ-centered framework for holistic care for the soul and the body. There are Christians who have written in this area, churches who are excelling in this area, but I think we're just beginning to think through these issues on a sophisticated scientific and holistic and theological level. My prayer is that within the next 10 to 20 years, we're going to have a much more well-developed framework within which to think about biblical counseling, about Christian counseling and about Christian psychotherapy, and pastor care that can cover the gamut from a Christian approach to psychiatry, and to dealing with the brain, and to Christ-centered psychotherapy models. All of which can work closely with local churches who do front-line, Christian mainstream care of the soul for the people of God.
Read CP's related discussion with Dr. Johnson: Mental Health Expert: Christians Should Not Be Surprised That There's Something Wrong With All of Us