Even though the vast majority of Christians are as willing as the general population to make use of every available medical treatment when they have a physical malady, it seems that some Christians are unwilling to accept that mental health problems are as real as physical health problems.
In a study of Christian church members who approached their church for help with a personal or family member's diagnosed mental illness, researchers found that more than 32 percent were told by their pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness.
The problem was solely spiritual in nature, they were told.
Here's the thing: Other studies have found that clergy, and not psychologists or other mental health experts, are the most common source of help sought in times of psychological distress.
"The results are troubling because it suggests individuals in the local church are either denying or dismissing a somewhat high percentage of mental health diagnosis," said study leader Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas. "Those whose mental illness is dismissed by clergy are not only being told they don't have a mental illness, they are also being told they need to stop taking their medication. That can be a very dangerous thing."
Being a Christian, I think I can identify the two obstacles that hinder Christians from properly understanding mental illness.
First, it may appear that acknowledging the reality of a mental illness undermines the Christian doctrine of sin. If sin is caused by illness, then how can God hold anyone accountable for anything? Yes, it's a slippery slope from (A) "that person has schizophrenia and is not responsible for his actions" to (B) "that person is a victim of society's injustice and is not responsible for his actions". But the fact that there's a risk of a slippery slope to (B) doesn't negate the truth behind (A).
Just as God will not condemn a person for missing church the day after they're injured in a car wreck or have a baby, God will not condemn a person for sins of omission or commission that are out of their control due to mental illness or disability. God's standard for each of us is that we honor him according to how he has enabled us.
Read the parable of the talents ("talents" are units of gold). The man who invested two talents and earned two more got the same reward as the man who invested five talents and earned five more. The man who had one talent wasn't condemned because he earned too little, but because he failed to use the talent he had at all. God doesn't expect more from us than he enables us to do. In the parable, God gave each man the talents he had, and God wasn't disappointed when the man to whom he gave two talents "only" earned two more.
I hope the connection I'm making is clear between the talents in the parable and the level of physical and mental health that God blesses a person with. The point is that mental illness or disability do not negate a person's responsibility to repent of their sin and accept Christ's payment to the degree they are able to do so, but that degree may be less than what a person in full health is capable of.
Second, while secular humanists are too extreme in their belief that man is purely material and mechanical, Christians have a tendency to view man as purely spiritual. It's true that men have spirits that stand outside the bounds of the natural physical world. For now, though, these spirits are bound to our physical bodies and must suffer the limitations of our mortal lives.
When Jesus was tortured and crucified he didn't dismiss the pain as merely a physical irritation that his spirit could ignore. No, he cried out in agony! And not just physical agony, but mental agony as well.
Matthew 27:46: About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Has there ever been a deeper pain than that Jesus suffered when God turned his back on him for the sake of our sin? Not even the nails in his hands and feet compared to it. Jesus is God, but when he bound himself to a mortal body he experienced all the pain and suffering that goes along with the human experience -- physical and mental.
Christians who believe that mental illnesses or disabilities are merely matters of the will that can be overcome by the strength of our spirits have a fundamental misunderstanding of our dual nature. Our spirits and our bodies are not independent (as the Buddhists teach) but are intimately linked until they are finally separated at death. Some mental illness is the result of physical problems in physical brains, and can be no more overcome by willpower or therapy than can be diabetes.
When therapy is the best possible treatment for a mental illness, then I've got no doubt that such therapy should be Biblical in nature, but it should also be informed by medical expertise. When drugs are required to treat a physical problem in the brain, then they should not be rejected any more than a diabetic would reject insulin.
It's unnerving to accept that physical changes in our brains can affect our mental processes, but they can. Does this undermine the concept of free will? No, but it qualifies our free will. A man with a broken leg may want to run a marathon, but his failure to do so isn't the result of a lack of willpower. His free will may desire to, but his body simply cannot. A man with schizophrenia, or mania, or depression may want to act normally, but his brain will not cooperate.
Therapy is an important part of treatment for these diseases, but therapy alone will often not mitigate their symptoms enough to allow the normal exercise of free will. A man with diabetes receives therapy and instruction on how to manage his disease, what he should eat, and what sorts of activities he needs to limit, but even with the best therapy and willpower a diabetic may require insulin injections. A man with depression may require drugs to enable his body/brain to act on the instructions he is given in therapy and that his free will wants to carry out.
As with many issues, consideration of mental health issues requires a great deal of discernment on the part of Christians. It's true that many people are simply looking for ways to escape responsibility for their decisions and are quick to claim that some force outside of their control compelled them to act badly. Sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not, but Christians who dismiss all such claims will end up ignoring some of the most hurting people in the world who are in desperate need of God's love.
In Heaven there will be no mental illness just as there is no physical illness. As Christians we live with an expectation for that future, but we haven't reached it yet. Christians need to properly understand the nature of mental illness and mental disability if we hope to share God's love with people who are suffering.