The Chaplain and Mental Illness: When religion makes healing “sinful”

The issue of how Christians deal with mental illness has been on my mind as of late. One reason is that I’ve been going through my own therapy for anxiety and depression, which rears its head from time to time in my life. Second is that I came across a LinkedIn discussion in a pastor’s network group that had some pretty ugly things to say about mental illness and psychotherapy.

Writer and musician Shaun Groves recently posted his own reflections on depression and faith on his blog, and while I can’t repost the whole article, I would certainly recommend it to you (here’s the link). He had written about his father-in-law’s death as a result of suicide and while many offered their sincere condolences some of the responses were a bit shocking. One wrote, “Did he not believe the words from scripture he read to his church?”. Another wrote, “The Bible tells us not to worry, not to fear, be afraid, etc. 366 times, one for every day of the year including leap year! What can stinkin thinkin do, but make a person sick?”.

Groves went on to site research that found that for those who self-identified as Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians, people were split evenly when asked if they thought depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia could be cured by faith alone (48% yes vs. 47% no). This attitude was quite different than those of Americans in general.


Dr. Marcia Webb, a clinical psychologist with Seattle Pacific University, found similar results:

Over the years, in my own experience as a Christian, I often heard statements in church settings, from both congregants and religious leaders, associating mental illness with lack of faith. I started to investigate this possibility further by reading research in the psychology of religion literature. I would learn that a significant portion of the Christian community in countries around the world endorses the belief that believers should be immune from mental disorder, and that mental disorder may be evidence of either personal sin or demonic influence (Cinnerella & Loewenthal, 1999; Dain, 1992; Hartog & Gow, 2005).

Part of the problem is that some Christians see psychology and counseling as antithetical to faith. I was once told that “‘Christian Psychology’ is an oxymoron. A Christian should not need Psychology because they have the Prince of Peace.” When I brought up issues around the importance of counseling  it was written off as “psychobabble”. While this individual was certainly in the minority in this particular discussion, it’s certainly not the only time I’ve heard of it.

It’s not hard to find popular Christian books decrying psychology with titles like “The End of Christian Psychology”,
“Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology”, and “Psychobabble”.  While most of these titles tend to be older, they are still widely available and promoted by churches and religious broadcasters.

What this has to do with Chaplaincy is that we need to be aware that for some their faith, at least from our perspective, will be a hindrance to their healing and development. We will on occasion  come across those who need more help than we can offer, and our mandate is such that we direct them to the help that they need. It’s not uncommon to direct someone to professional counseling to get help with mental illnesses such as depression. Stresses that come from hospital stays, ER visits, long-term illness and starting hospice can exacerbate problems to the point that normal coping strategies fail and mental illness can take hold. Many Chaplains, myself included, take advantage of counseling and psychological support from time to time. I would bargain that most professional Chaplains have a very favorable view of psychology and counseling.

So when we run up against those who are suspicious of psychology, or even outright hostile towards therapy, what are we to do when we feel that they may benefit from it?

The first thing we need to do is leave space to find out why. Did they or someone they know have a bad experience in the past? Is psychology seen as something contrary to God’s will? Do they feel that they have to handle things on their own without help? Finding out his or her concern about getting help is an obvious but important first step to overcoming those obstacles.

There are many common concerns that people have regarding counseling and treatment which get in the way of getting help. Researchers have identified some of the most common ones as:

  1. Social Stigma & Social Norms: Research has found that when a person’s culture or subculture (religion, social network, family system) sees counseling as a negative event or a “last resort”, than that person is less likely to seek out help. Mental illness tends to have very poor connotations in society, and people may fear being labeled with a disease or diagnosis. The Chaplain can help here by providing positive reinforcement and affirming self-worth regardless of societal “labels”. There may be situations where psychological treatment may actually be seen as a negative in their job or family. In these cases care must be used to support the person to find treatment while at the same time minimizing risks. The Chaplain can also help identify and reinforce new social structures that are more supportive, while at the same time helping the individual cope with any backlash from others.
  2. Treatment Fears: There is very limited understanding of treatment options available and what they may involve. Some may jump to extremes such as scenes of ECT or therapy in films and conclude that all therapy is similar. Providing information on treatments and sharing one’s own experiences will help tremendously here. One can also encourage folks to simply try counseling for a period of time, with the understanding that if things don’t go well with a certain therapist or treatment plan then they can try something else. Reframing professional counseling as education, life coaching, or support groups can also go far to alleviate fears and misconceptions.
  3. Fear of Emotion & Self Disclosure: Some may fear what would happen to themselves emotionally – or spiritually – when long withheld feelings and truths are brought out. It may be that the person may not have much experience opening up, and doing so makes them feel vulnerable or stupid. One may fear judgment or criticism as well. Here, the Chaplain can help by encouraging the person to talk about their feelings and reflect back when they are doing so. Recognizing and reinforcing this will help someone tremendously when entering therapy. Use of positive regard and maintaining a calm demeanor when confronted with difficult subjects are also critical here.
  4. “Risks Outweigh the Benefits”: The negatives associated with therapy (as stated above) may be overemphasized while the potential benefits may be minimized. Researchers have found that the perceived risks and benefits are the two most influential factors in whether or not one seeks treatment. The Chaplain here can help by allowing the person to give full vent to their apprehensions and reflecting them back in a more realistic manner, asking about the probability of that actually happening. The Chaplain can also confront minimized strengths and benefits, which will also minimize the negatives.

While Chaplains may not formally provide therapy and treatment, the support and direction that they provide can be critical to those suffering from mental illness. The Chaplain’s own experience and struggles, especially if they involved personal counseling, can also go far to normalize the experience of needing help, affirming that one is not alone in the healing process.






7 thoughts on “The Chaplain and Mental Illness: When religion makes healing “sinful”

  1. The article brings to light the result of bad theology For far too long there has been a movement in America that faith will solve problems . However, faith in Christ Jesus does not promise to solve problems but to comfort us in the midst of those problems. Thus the mental health professional and chaplain and whoever the neighbor is the key to comfort. Bringing to light the fullness of the Gospel . Which includes building and encouraging the mentally ill to use God,s gift of medicine and comforting with the greatest words of faith I will never leave you or forsake you.

  2. Thank you for your comments. I am a Chaplain’s Assistant Trainee, and have had to deal with this issue in my own family as my daughter has had depression issues and personality disorder most of her life. I pray that one day, the Church at large will come to understand that mental disorders can be just as organic as diabetes or heart disease.

    • Thanks so much for your comments and story. Mental illness touches so many families and yet we tend to sweep it under the table as someone else’s problem. Prayers and peace for you and your daughter. It’s a tremendously difficult thing to deal with.

    • Thanks for your comments! I also hope that there is a much greater understanding of the links between biology, emotion and personality. Much needs to be done.

      • Long ago in seminary I was taught the PEMSS paradigm for health: Physical, Emotional, Mental, Social, and Spiritual. It makes even more sense today. I used daily my practice as a hospice chaplain.

  3. Thank your for posting this! I suspect that many Christians who would never tell a person with a knife would to “snap out of it” or “read your Bible and pray about it” don’t realize how physiological (i.e. biochemical) mental illness is.

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