As I’ve written about mental illness and the church over the last couple of years, I’ve addressed the church in general. But today I especially want to address my fellow evangelicals.
A recent LifeWay Research survey produced some interesting statistics related to mental illness, among them two stats that reveal a shocking contrast. Among the evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians surveyed, 64 percent believe churches should do more to prevent suicide. At the same time, 48 percent believe serious mental illness can be cured by prayer alone.
Now here’s what I find shocking: That second statistic reveals an attitude that actually accomplishes the opposite of what 64 percent claimed they want the church to do. Here’s a tip: If you believe churches should do more to help prevent suicide, here’s one tangible and quick way to help right now: Stop telling people they can cure their mental illness with only prayer.
Granted, just because people say mental illness can be overcome with Bible study and prayer does not mean those same people would discourage medical treatment and therapy for someone with mental illness. But in far too many churches, such beliefs are widely held and regularly taught. And in others, although seeking treatment is not condemned in a wholesale manner, prayer and Bible study are prescribed as the first step to try to avoid treatment–and this, for many people, has the same effect as discouraging treatment. It certainly has the effect of delaying treatment, and delay increases the likelihood that mental illness will become severe, cause serious disruption to functioning, and potentially cost a person his or her life.
While most people who have mental illness (more than 25 percent of the American adult population) do not die by suicide, most experts claim that at least 90 percent of people who do die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. And many of those people do not receive treatment for their mental health. Clearly, the appropriate treatment and management of mental illness is one important way–possibly the most important way–to prevent suicide. And prayer by itself, although helpful, is not appropriate treatment of mental illness. In fact, one sure way to drive people closer to despair is to tell them their mental illness is simply a spiritual problem, tell them to pray it away, then when it doesn’t work, just tell them to pray harder. Laying a heavy spiritual burden on people suffering from serious mental illness is a way to encourage suicide, not to prevent it.
It’s easy for most to see that if you told people with cancer, diabetes, or kidney failure that prayer was the best way to treat their life-threatening illness, and because of your counsel they refused medical treatment, you would be contributing to their death. Do you realize serious mental illness is also a life-threatening condition? According to the United Nations and the National Institute of Mental Health, “On average, Americans with major mental illness die 14 to 32 years earlier than the general population. The average life expectancy for people with major mental illness ranged from 49 to 60 years of age . . . a life span on par with many sub-Saharan African countries, including Sudan (58.6 years) and Ethiopia (52.9 years).” Contrast this to the average life expectancy in the United States: 78.6 years. Suicide is only one small reason for this decreased life expectancy, but it is significant. People with schizophrenia are 50 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Among people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, at least 25 to 50 percent attempt suicide. Among people with major depression, the suicide rate is 8 times that of the general population. For anyone to self-righteously tell such people they do not have a medical condition that requires treatment, and that more rigorous religious activity is all they need, is inexcusable.
Consider what happens when, despite people’s sincere and frequent prayers, this prescription just doesn’t work–as inevitably it won’t for most people. Your faulty advice has condemned the person to suffer–on top of symptoms of serious mental illness–with feelings of spiritual inadequacy or abandonment. How can they not conclude that their prayers aren’t good enough or that God has walked away from them?
Believe me, if prayer alone were the standard cure for mental illness, my mother would be healthy and whole instead of ravaged by the symptoms of schizophrenia. In fact, if faith were an effective inoculation instead brain disorders, she never would have developed such an illness. If going to an evangelical prayer meeting ensured mental health, none of the people I wrote about in my book Troubled Minds would have had anything to say. I interviewed faithful Christians who take medication, engage in therapy, attend support groups, and yes, pray regularly.
God can heal anyone, and sometimes he does so miraculously. But most of the time, he doesn’t. Such an acknowledgment does not undermine God’s greatness or his goodness. He has placed us in a world where we live within the boundaries of the very natural laws he created–and with the presence of disease, decay, and death. Mental illness, like other diseases, is a reality of life in a world where parts of our body–including our brains–get sick and malfunction. We don’t consider it acceptable to prescribe prayer alone for diseased livers, hearts, and pancreases; why prescribe it for disordered brains? Prayer is critical to a healthy spiritual life, whether or not we are suffering from serious disease. But it is not a responsible replacement for medical treatment.
I love the church, and I’m a huge fan of the many ways God has used Christian people as a force for good in this world. But sometimes, in our ignorance, stubborn misconception, corruption, laziness, fear, or very human desire to believe we deserve a better life than others, we actually become a serious part of the problem. For Christians who believe prayer and Bible study are the correct replacements for mental-health treatment, this is one of those times.
It’s time for all of us to learn and tell the truth–and to help save lives.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.