A lot of progress has been made in recent years on educating families and communities about understanding mental illness.
Unfortunately, the approach to mental illness in many religious communities is still based on a deep misunderstanding of both the nature of mental illnesses and how to care for the mentally ill. As disciples, we are accountable for the welfare of our sisters and brothers. Because of this, ensuring that our communities understand how to serve those with mental illnesses should be a natural priority.
While there are those who deny the existence and validity of mental illness altogether, the problems that arise in religious communities typically result from a failure to properly address the needs of those living with mental illnesses. That stems from lack of knowledge and resources:
It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently. We immediately assume there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain. The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things; we are complex people—remarkably connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc. But, let me be direct here: if we immediately dismiss the possibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions amount to spiritual abuse. (Ed Setzer)
In 2013, Lifeway research asked religious communities about their perspective on mental illness and found that “fifty percent of those 18-29 years old say prayer and Bible study could overcome mental illness.” Confusion between mental and spiritual health presents a serious problem. Although each significantly influences the other, spiritual and mental health are not synonymous, and to use one to treat the other is, at best, ineffective.
Think of the comparison as two different body systems. For example, the respiratory and musculoskeletal systems are two distinct body systems that each function in their own way. While the health and wellbeing of one will likely affect the other, an illness or injury within either system can be addressed only within that system. Someone who is unable to breathe adequately on their own will not be healed by having their leg wrapped in a cast. Spiritual health—the strength of someone’s relationship with their faith—and mental health are different systems.
It is easy to suppose that if the mentally ill could only understand where their true worth and value comes from and how much God loves them, they would be able to shake off their illness. But we cannot expect to help someone by offering a solution that fails to acknowledge the reality of his or her suffering. In the case of mental illness, this means acknowledging that the state of one’s mental health does not necessarily indicate the state of one’s spiritual health. Most mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances or other extenuating factors that do not fall into the category of spiritual health.
Galatians 6:2 says we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Messiah.” It is morally negligent, especially for followers of Yeshua, to ignore the burdens or needs of our brothers and sisters. It is our responsibility to create understanding, respect, and empathy within our communities for those with mental illnesses. Fortunately, there are many resources available that serve this purpose. For those interested in learning more about the topic, mentalhealth.gov is a great place to start.