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Frenemies: The Church & Mental Health – Part 1

For me, the root of this subject matter runs deep. I am someone who has experienced years of mental health troubles through my occupation, personal experiences, research, lives of my friends, and more. In addition to that, I was born and raised in the church. My years of experience with mental health and the church, as separate entities, is quite plentiful. So, when church is a part of your life, you’re raised with a certain viewpoint of religion and the church. Being a person of color adds specific levels and expectations to that. Therapy and mental health have significantly become more talked about and advocated for within society. I feel that it is still not discussed and supported nearly as much as it should be, within the church. No matter what issues or ailments you have, many believe you can just pray it away. You will hear things like “it’s just a demon in them” or “the devil is just attacking your body”. Although, both of those statements could be true; I fail to believe that therapeutic services exist for everyone but people of God. I am a firm believer and living testimony, in that prayer and faith make a perfect match.

Religion and spirituality can affect mental health in several ways. Some studies have found that religious people report fewer suicides or more negative attitudes toward suicide. However, religious beliefs and practices may also increase the prevalence of anxiety through the induction of guilt and fear. The church is notorious for beating people over the head with their guilt and fears. For example, some say that the church's mishandling of mental illness is centered around the belief in a relationship with sin. A 2016 study found that only seven percent of church pastors discuss mental health with their congregations ``once a month'' or ``several times a month'', while 92 percent of pastors reported talking about mental health in sermons or church functions ``once a year, rarely, or never''. 

Some people have left churches, or never attended in the first place, because they don't feel accepted. Young people have expressed feelings of alienation over some religions' stances on gender, abortion, sexual orientation, and of exclusion because they don't fit a religious community's mold. I remember hearing a story one time about how a church member had come home from the hospital after having knee surgery, and half the church had brought all kinds of cards, foot, gifts, etc. However, when someone else in the church came home from the hospital after a suicide attempt – there was no food, gifts, or cards brought to the home.

Mental health may have been an unfortunate backburner issue in years past, but the past few years have brought to the surface the severity of the problem. While COVID-19 measures kept us from religious services, family gatherings, and other forms of community, our anxiety about health, politics, and social interactions have skyrocketed. Mental health and illness have always been one of society’s greatest curiosities and infatuations. The church’s history with mental illness is rocky at best. In her book, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Health, the Rev. Dr. Heather Vacek, associate professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, explores the successes and failures of addressing mental illness from colonial times through the modern means of today.

To reform the relationship between the church and the advocacy of mental health, one must first look at specific areas where the church has failed. There are 3 areas at the root of the problem, regarding the church and mental health:

  1. Mental illness as a demonic possession

  2. Mental illness as an expression of sin

  3. A culture of silence when it comes to mental struggles


Associating mental illness to demonic possession, to me, is one of the most extreme errors the church has committed. When people have mental illness in the church; instead of patient’s they are treated as enemies. They are not viewed as sick but yet the damned. Then there’s the matter of mental illness as an expression of sin. According to the Alliance of Mental Illness, they state: Now, there are two caveats to that statement that must be made. First, the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Humankind does teach that the imperfections and evils in the world are caused by human sin. Secondly, sinful actions and habits can birth or influence mental illness, and to teach that there is no correlation is to miss the corruptive power of sin. However, in and of itself mental illness is not a sin and those who are sick are not inherently living in a state of sin. Anxiety and depression, bipolar and schizophrenia are conditions of the body and soul. Calling for people to “repent” of their illnesses, or to “pray more” are not real answers to people who are both body and soul. Approaching mental illness from a perspective of judgment or “you have brought this upon yourself” is not promoting health but exacerbates these dysfunctions and illness.


Lastly, there’s the culture of silence aka. sweeping stuff under the rug, as it pertains to mental health struggles. This error is the outgrowth of those two previous errors. In a sense, this silence has less to do with the true teaching of the Church, but rather with the culture that can develop within it. Stigma, defined as “a mark of shame or discredit,” can be seen in the practices of shunning, gossip, hurtful silence, or turning a blind eye to those in need. In part, the problem can come from a desire to please others, to put on the “Sunday best” even when you feel like your “Sunday worst.” Or for others it is not knowing how to interact with people who struggle but are instead overly focused on having the “right answers.” In the Church, the stigma around mental health can be seen in unspoken pain, the denigration of non-believers, and in promoting a one-size-fits-all cure for these life troubles. Too often “I’ll pray for you” or “just have faith” have been the answer to those struggling with health and faith in the Church. Instead of coming alongside the needy, we shun and shame them for not fitting our idea of the perfect Christian life. 


The church is a place of refuge and support for many people. It’s well known that people often seek out a faith leader before they see a mental health professional. Churches have a unique opportunity to offer support and help to young people who are struggling with mental health issues. The church can provide a safe and supportive environment where young people can express their feelings and receive help without fear of judgment. Unfortunately, this is not happening. There is judgement, ridicule, victim blaming, victim shaming, and things being swept under the rug that could affect one’s image. Pastors, ministry leaders, and members need to be informed about the early warning signs of mental health issues and how to support and provide care to the folks in their congregation or those they encounter by other means. This type of training and education can be done through workshops, seminars, and training programs by mental health professionals and organizations.

Many people are unaware of what mental health issues really are and how they can affect them. Churches and faith-based groups can provide educational programs on mental health and its effects on young people and various age groups. These programs can help to recognize the signs of mental health issues and to understand that it is okay to ask for help. And assure them without a doubt that they will not be shamed, shunned, or blamed. Additionally, churches can provide resources on where to seek help for mental health issues.

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