As churches struggle to help Christians with mental illness, many flee

Audience members seen during a service at the American Association of Christian Counselors' three-day meeting focusing on mental health and the church, in Nashville, Tennessee, Sept. 24, 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of American Association of Christian Counselors

As studies continue to show how ill-equipped many churches are in ministering to Christians who struggle with mental illness, some who were once among the faithful are now speaking out about how the spiritualizing of their conditions in church culture forced them to flee.

In a recent discussion sparked by a rant in a subreddit of more than 40,000 anonymous former Christians, many shared stories about how they were forced to suffer as their evangelical churches and family members urged them to pray away conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety and ADD before they were finally able to get help. Some said they never got the help they needed until they were adults.

“As a TEENAGER I said to the Christian I looked up to, ‘Hey, I hear voices and see shadow people everywhere, also I want to kill myself,’" a former Christian, who was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, wrote. "And I was told it was just ‘spiritual warfare’ and Satan fighting for my soul. I was told to NOT seek therapy because therapists work for the devil to drive people away from the Lord."

“I believed it easily because of the nature of my illness. He downplayed and contorted my illness so badly that even after I stopped believing in God, it took me years to get into therapy and get treatment. My life spiraled into drug abuse to cope, lost job after lost job, and my 20s wasted in pain.” 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes schizoaffective disorder as a chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression. It is often treated with a combination of medications and psychotherapy.

The individual explained that since they decided to get professional help, their life has changed for the better.

About one in four Americans are estimated to suffer from some kind of mental illness in any given year, NAMI says, and many, according to LifeWay Research, turn to the church for help.

A 2014 study by the Nashville-based research organization, which was co-sponsored by the conservative organization Focus on the Family and the family of a man who endured schizophrenia, pointed to the lack of awareness and help available to Christians who turn to the church for help with mental illness.

The study found some pastors were reluctant to help those who suffer from acute mental illness because it takes too much time and that most Protestant senior pastors rarely spoke to their congregation about mental illness.

Asked to describe current church culture on mental illness, Tim Sanford, clinical director at Focus on the Family, said there has been some progress made in recent years but many churches continue to blame mental issues on sin.

“Fortunately, there has been positive movement in recent years as the church is beginning to respond to mental health issues and recognize their legitimacy. While many churches acknowledge mental illness as legitimate and are actively helping their parishioners with such issues, sadly, the belief (and subsequent responses) that anxiety or depression is sin or is a ‘lack of faith’ on the individual’s part is still too common in the body of Christ,” Sanford told The Christian Post.

“Blind adherence to a flawed ethic on mental illness can lead to unnecessary guilt, debilitating shame and fear. This, in turn, limits access to help and freedom — the kind of freedom and compassion Christ modeled and died for (John 10:10). Focus on The Family encourages believers to take a measured, integrated approach to the subject of mental health; hold to what is biblically true and accurate and also hold to what is scientifically true and research proven.”

One former Christian in a subreddit group, called out Focus on the Family, however, for what they described as an insensitive encounter when they once tried accessing a Christian therapist.

“I was told that I was sinning by having anxiety and intrusive thoughts. This caused me anxiety about anxiety and a spiral of feeling like I wasn’t a true Christian because a true Christian wouldn’t worry," the individual wrote. "Then there was the time I called Focus on the Family because they said they had a hotline for mental health. I got to their hotline and was matched with a cold rude and condescending mental health worker who tried to charge me $60 to match me with a Christian therapist in my area. Their hotline was a referral program that charged its patients a finder’s fee.”

Sanford apologized for the encounter and debunked the notion that “true Christians” don’t worry.

“I’m very sorry this person was treated in such an uncaring manner and their relationship with Jesus was put into question because of anxiety. The statement ‘a true Christian wouldn’t worry’ is simply not true. I can only imagine the added stress and pain that statement caused this individual,” Sanford said.

He pointed out that Focus on the Family does not provide fee-based tele-mental health services nor does the organization function as a hotline service.

“We have a highly experienced and caring staff of 15 licensed and/or pastoral counselors who return calls to people requesting a consult. We are not a hotline service nor do we provide tele-mental health counseling services for a fee; rather we provide a free, one-time consultation for the caller. Our primary task during this brief consult is to assess how we can best assist the caller,” he explained.

“We will provide answers to questions as we are able, direct them toward resources that may be helpful (be it online or printed resources), make suggestions of professional treatment facilities to consider (if that is what is requested) and provide referrals to licensed counselors in the caller’s area for ongoing therapy as appropriate,” he noted.

As Christians with mental health illness struggle to find help from churches, research also suggests that the need for mental help is not just among the laity. Many pastors struggling with reconciling their mental illness with their faith have turned to suicide because they feel they have nowhere else to turn.

Some pastors, however, are choosing to fight back and turning to places like the Shepherd's Canyon Retreat Ministry in Phoenix, Arizona, for help. The organization offers weeklong counseling retreats for men and women in ministry who are in the midst of various stages of burnout, stress, depression and conflicts of all kinds.

In the last 10 years, Pastor Phil Lee, a Lutheran pastor since 1981, and a licensed marriage and family therapist since 1999, who serves as the organization’s counseling care director, says he has seen 400 to 500 at-risk leaders.

He explained that rather than ignoring the spiritual nature of Christian leaders to address their mental health issues, they take an integrated approach to care.

“We are very careful not to separate the emotional and spiritual; they are interwoven. They are integrated. So our approach to mental health issues, whatever they may be, is that they are part of the overall human condition. Physical, emotional, spiritual — that is all interwoven,” Lee told CP.

“We do not take the simplistic approach, that just pray about it and it will be alright or just pray about it and it will go away. Mental illness is most always more complex than that. Folks on the more conservative end of the spectrum within Christianity often take a pretty simplistic approach — just give it to God. Just pray about it,” he said.

“It really does require different interventions along with Scripture and prayer. Many mental illnesses, for example depression, especially if it’s clinical depression, bipolar, those kinds of things, they really call for therapeutic interventions like talk therapy, counseling, sometimes medication, and other mental illnesses,” he continued. “More complex mental illness like personality disorders, those are things we usually don’t work with because they are more complex than we are prepared to deal with.”

He noted that based on the reporting collected by his organization, the need for the services they provide is “huge” in the Christian community.

Sanford explained that churches can help make churches safer for Christians who struggle with mental health issues by acknowledging that they exist, be knowledgeable about them, establish what level of mental health care ministerial staff can provide and have a trusted network of mental health professionals to which they can refer them.

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