10 Ways Mental Illness Is Stigmatized in the Church

Last week, I listed 10 Ways Mental Illness Is Stigmatized in Our Culture. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I devoted an entire chapter of Troubled Minds to discussion of stigma. This week, I’ll list 10 ways many churches are guilty of reinforcing that stigma, adding to the sense of shame people feel in our culture at large. Our misunderstandings and lack of compassion discourage people from getting the treatment they need.

1. Sending the message, intentional or not, that Christians don’t have serious problems–some churches embrace this idea as part of their core teaching; others suggest it without meaning to.

2. Perpetuating misunderstanding and mistrust of psychology–many people have outdated notions of what psychology is and believe it leads people away from God because it’s based in science rather than purely in biblical teaching; so is every other field of medicine, but that doesn’t stop us from seeking treatment for cancer or a ruptured appendix.

3. Focusing on numbers and branding–as we try to attract more people and build a brand as the coolest church in town, we naturally look for the beautiful and popular, and discourage people with problems, who might not fit in and might ask us to take our ministry deeper instead of broader.

4. Emphasizing polite behavior and exaggerated piety–people who function well in most contexts might have more trouble at church if it’s an environment that expects people to conform to rigid standards of behavior; this emphasizes the sense that people with problems don’t belong in the church.

5. Referring and forgetting–while it’s appropriate for churches to refer people to mental health professionals, abandoning them to the system sends the message that the church has nothing to offer people in times of real darkness.

6. Staying silent–when we fail to address mental illness as reality, we reinforce loneliness and marginalization and, again, send the message that the church–and therefore God–has no help or hope to offer.

7. Assuming all mental illness is caused by demons–this faulty belief undermines medical treatment and marginalizes people who need help.

8. Suggesting mental illness is God’s punishment–this idea directly contradicts Jesus’ teaching and paints God as a cruel and capricious master who plays favorites.

9. Claiming mental illness is evidence of weak faith or flagrant sin–we blame people for their suffering, suggest that they are more sinful than the rest of us, and withhold

the grace and hope Christ gives freely.

10. Proposing purely spiritual solutions to medical problems–we discourage people from seeking medical help and instead suggest that religious activity is the solution–burdening people rather than sending them to Jesus, whose yoke is easy to bear and whose burden is light.

Do you recognize your church–or yourself–on this list? The good news is, we can change our attitudes toward mental illness. Our nation is engaged in a redemptive discussion about mental health and how to respond to problems effectively and compassionately. Let’s make sure the church is not only in this conversation, but leading the way, in keeping with our mission in this life.

17 Comments
  1. I do not belong to the charismatic movement but have observed that many in these churches have a gospel that stigmatizes mental illness to a very high degree. They do not encourage mentally disturbed people to go for medical attention. They simply pray and leave the victims even more confused on what is troubling them. I think the best way would be to take the patient to hospital and then pray for them from wherever they are.

  2. Pam Shoup says:

    Amy, I’m working on a book with Trevin Wax for WaterBrook Multnomah (Clear Winter Nights) and was just at his blog. I notice he is recommending your book and didn’t know if you had seen this. Cool! (6/19/13 entry)
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/

  3. irene johnson says:

    I have bipolar disorder.
    i would like to add also that there were times when my medication wasn’t working and i became episodic that i would have appreciated corporate prayer from the body of Christ in my church but because my sickness was secretive and known by a few all that was done for me was behind closed doors and “whispers”. I believe in the efficacy of corporate prayer and i say to myself, ” Why should i lose out on the power of corporate prayer?” When i wrote down a request for corporate prayer after i gave my testimony and revealed my sickness and the stigmas that are there the prayer request was not honored because the elders felt that they needed to start some kind of ministry first and educatetGod’s people. So i must wait. So pray that something will soon get started at our church and that much wisdom is given to my elders. I was received well by those who heard the testimony and i believe that God’s people at the church are open to being educated and looking at the sickness in a more truthful manner…
    Also, i believe just as there is a “health and wealth” gospel, there is also an “:emotional health gospel” that is not as easily recognized.

    Thank you for your blog…. I’s been most encouraging.

    • Amy says:

      Great point, Irene. I believe you’re right about the existence of an “emotional health gospel.” I applaud you for sharing your story and asking for prayer. I hope churches will become more open about mental health struggles, and I believe this is happening. But we have a long way to go.

    • Rob says:

      In my view, its time to leave that church. It will not get better. If they can not at least PRAY, something is wrong with them, and they are trying to get you to leave.
      Sorry, thats the way I see it.

      I live with bipolar, OCD, and PTSD, and it seems that conservative pastors and churches have a stick up thier behinds when it comes to this stigma. They seem to be good at playing church rather then BEING church.

      I am a Christian, but just dumped a church due to this same kind of thoughts due to the pastor.

      There are always emails going out about this or that person with illness, or death or what ever, but when I have been in distress, not ONCE has there been an email about me. Not once. Not even in church. Money or job problems a few times, yeah, but not thing thing that controls my life, my mental illness.

      Its not going to get any better I fear.

      Time to just give up on church I suppose.

      Its frustration that I can not even have a church family.

      You know, I once had a pastor tell me that depression, (this was when I was depressed one time some years back) was a SIN!

      So, thats all I wanted to say.

  4. Kachina riley says:

    My growing up in a home with a mentally ill mother and the influence of the religious affiliation on me as a child, that were almost catastrophic have been documented in my recently published memoirs “Tattered Phoenix.”
    The church insisted that mother’s mental illness was related to demon possession and when the “saints” of the church were unable to cast out her demons, they deserted her and the family. So I know firshand the destructive forces that still seem to permeate many religious faiths. Sad but true! kachina

  5. wayne deibel says:

    #5 referring out and #6 being silent are the most common. In both instances, leaders and people in the church are able to “nicely” ignore those who are hurting and their families – communicating that “this church isn’t the one you’d be the best match for you…. why don’t you visit another church.”

  6. Gary says:

    The issues surrounding emotional and mental distress are rather complex for even those of us in the profession because the Psychiatric, Psychological, Counseling professions are themselves conflicted about it. The debates that swirled and surrounded the publishing of the DSM series is an education in itself about how challenging it is to classify the various “Illnesses” that are used in the manuals. I received a Masters in 1967 and a Doctorate in 1975 and have been involved one way or another in the profession and see first grand how confusing it is so the fact that churches are confused and conflicted is not surprising. My approach has been to train Peer Helpers who understand the basics but refer serious cases to professionals. Then distressed people have a port in the storm.

  7. Irene j says:

    Amy,
    I really appreciate your blog. I have responded before and your returned reply was encouraging. I have bipolar. When I wrote before that was my only diagnosis. However, I went through a time When my medication wasn’t and with further examination of my mental health, the psychiatrist added schizoaffective disorder. My medication was adjusted and I have been stable for over two years. šŸ˜Š
    I am active in the church I attend with some ministries. However, even though I have been serving in some capacity; which I am thankful for, I was told that I would not be able to teach until I become stable. I have been faithful in my treatment. To this day I have yet been given a teaching position. Also, I have made it know and have a desire to be a facilitator in the women’s. Up to now, I have worked in the office, did inventory and listing all the books my Pastor has, worked in the Mountaintop ministry and other activities None these have anything to do with where my heart in service is.
    I could be wrong and I must be careful how I express my thoughts for in expressing my true thoughts may backfire.
    Could it possibly be that a stigma could exist in a subtle way. Could it be that the episodes that some have witnessed have hindered my chances of doing what I love to do. For years, in other churches I have been a Sunday School teacher, Christian School teacher, Sunday School Superintendent, Bible teacher at a Summer Camp…and more
    Could it be that some cannot leave behind what happened over two years ago? Sometimes, silence or failing to order me a position which I would truly enjoy can spean louder than words.

    • Amy says:

      Irene, it’s great to hear that you’re taking care of yourself and you’ve found the appropriate diagnosis and treatment. And I’m so glad you’re pursuing ministry opportunities in your church. I encourage you to keep letting your leaders know what you have to offer and where you would like to serve. I can’t speak to their thought processes or your specific setting, but I do know that many church leaders feel reluctant to put people when positions of leadership or influence when they know they have a mental health diagnosis because they’re afraid the person will not be able to handle the responsibility or something else will go wrong. I don’t know whether your leaders are held back by stigma, but many are. The best weapon we have against stigma is the stories and everyday lives of people that show the same flesh and blood as everyone else, and that contradict the stereotypes. So keep taking care of yourself and letting them know how you would like to serve. Maybe even acknowledge that you recognize they might be nervous and ask how you could help ease their fears. You could help create a breakthrough for not only yourself, but others who might be in the same position. God bless you!

  8. Sarah Baumann says:

    Amy, I stumbled across your site while researching the subject of mental illness and the church. I have had interesting responses in two separate congregations within the same denomination, and learned that my first experience was by far atypical of the overall attitude within that denomination. In the first church, mental illness was treated no differently from cancer or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Those who suffered were embraced with love, included in corporate and individual prayer, and, when I had to enter the psych ward at a local hospital, the Associate Pastor was the first one to show up to visit me (he stood at the door and banged on it until he got someone to respond and was informed of the strict visiting hours–and then he came back so he could see me during the appropriate time). The only reason it was the associate was that the Senior Pastor was out of town. They were supportive of my decision to use meds. This response was consistent throughout the congregation–I was not the only one. Then I had to move out of state, and found myself at the second church. Here I was treated very differently and felt shamed, ignored and shunned by the church leadership. Some individual members were supportive, many because they, too, suffered with issues. Eventually, we all ended up leaving that church and finding others. I now work at a church where there is great support among the membership and some of the leadership (the pastor simply doesn’t understand and freezes up when the subject is mentioned, but he is willing to support ministry to those with mental illness). As a result of my experiences, I am planning to create a blog of my own providing spiritual support in a safe setting for women (and men too) who have been under-served in the church at best. I will follow yours with great interest.

    • Amy says:

      Sarah, I thank God for your experience in the first church and that it stuck–that the second experience didn’t discourage you to the point where you gave up or clammed up. It’s great to hear about your current ministry and plans for your blog. I’m confident your own story will resonate with others and assure them they are not alone.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.