Personal and historical observations of mental illness from a Christian perspective.
If one reads the Gospels and analyzes the healings that Jesus did, approximately a third classify today as some form of mental illness. That was a large part of His ministry.
If anything, the copious narratives that resemble mental illness 2000 years ago are similar in percentage to the overall health of humanity today. The Canadian Mental Health Association has calculated that 21.3% of Canadians will have a mental health issue in their lifetime.1 It is an essential topic for the Christian community to address.
What exactly is mental illness and how to deal with it within a Christian framework is difficult to answer. Some say it is a demon, others that it is a biological problem, and most ignore the subject. A vast majority of ministers refer the mentally ill to skilled practitioners.
The interplay of faith, demons, and mental illness is a subject that is obscure and hard to nail down. There needs to be more literature from a faith perspective on the issue. There is no good publication or resource on demons or the doctrine of mental illness from the church’s inception until now. If some graduate students from a faith perspective are looking for a thesis subject, consider this one.
Pierre Gilbert’s Demons, Lies and Shadows is one of the few books that addresses the definition and nature of the subject, but is not a full framework. There are also books such as the American Exorcist by Michael Cuneo, or, Ronald Howard’s Charismania. Cuneo’s book is polemical against most current practices, and does not build a Christian framework. I have not read Charismania, but a quick look suggests a polemical work as well.
Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing comes closest to building a Christian doctrine for mental illness. The book dwells on the historical aspect of mental illness in the Eastern Church. However, it only contemplates on the history of the Eastern Church and mental illness. The book does not trace a religious progression to a contemporary faith framework.
The ancients did not understand body chemistry as we do today. Many conditions they would ascribe to demons have known causes.
The realm of such a discussion goes beyond this article. However, a few examples will demonstrate this tension.
The ancients did not know about cancer, especially brain cancer. The effects of brain cancer are far-reaching and affect a broad range of mental capacities. It can cause once-stable people to become impulsive. Some can become liars, and others can turn angry and violent. Some can inflict self-harm or punish others, and many more. The same conditions can happen after someone sustains a concussion – most likely through a car accident, a contact sport, or falling and hitting their head.
Nor did the ancients understand epilepsy, whose seizures cause people to fall to the floor and violently shake.
The ancients did not comprehend the idea of strokes and would likely have subscribed it to demons.
Strokes can cause changes in moods and personalities. For example, I heard the story about an esteemed civic leader and positive contributor in a nearby community. One night, while sleeping, he woke up and started angrily shouting and screaming at his wife. Later, he would yell and shout at every person he met for no apparent reason. This abrasive change in nature never abated. Medical specialists determined that he had suffered a stroke that affected this part of the brain. The stroke was a permanent and irreversible condition that drugs could control or stabilize but required full-time care in a psychiatric facility.
Neither would the ancients have understood the chemical effects of substance abuse. In the case of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, this may have hardly existed because their conservative religious environments did not allow women to imbibe. However, let us pretend it did in some epochs of European and Christian history. This condition is an irreversible brain condition due to a mother’s intake of alcohol, usually excessive, during the child’s gestation period in the womb. If this condition appeared in the early or Medieval Church, the physical effects would likely have caused the ancients to believe this was demonic.
These children born in such circumstances are not demon possessed, not even close.
Antiquity did not have human environmental contributors like leaded gasoline. Lead was a hidden epidemic that some attributed to a higher rate of violence, ADHD, and lowered intelligence. Since the legislated removal of lead in gas, violence, and other related factors have declined. How many human-made chemicals affect our brain functions, moods, and temperaments? We don’t know, and it is a far more complex situation. We wish the simple solution of casting out a demon could solve it.
Some are born in a geographic area where the ground does not contain enough iodine, and this is known to cause cognitive impairment. Others suffer from malnutrition, severely affecting emotional and intellectual development. Some can be born with slight impairments in body chemistry or have undeveloped or interrupted parts of the brain from birth, which conventional medicine cannot detect, and shown in some form of mental illness. It can be hardly recognizable with some, and it can be severe for others.
What if a doctor examines a person with a psychological condition such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality, etc., and finds no known physical cause? Do these have situations any association with the spiritual realm? These are loaded questions that may not be the right ones to ask. No adequately designed Christian framework provides an answer.
The ministry of Jesus demonstrates sensitivity in this area, and He healed people with mental issues. So how can we transfer this spiritual discipline to today’s mental health challenges? Here are a few examples from my own experiences that demonstrate the tension.
“No matter how much you pray, it won’t make any difference. You left her for too long before bringing her in, and the illness has progressed.” This was a psychiatrist’s response to us bringing Susannah*, whose delusion was life-threatening. She had transformed from a bubbly waitress one day into a severe form of psychosis the next. When it began, her husband called many people, including myself, to assist. We came and prayed, exorcized, and then prayed some more. Slight improvements occurred but were only momentary. Nothing in our spiritual toolkit permanently altered the case for the better.
We hoped that time and rest would do therapeutic work. Over a short period of a few days, it was clear neither worked. Out of fear of her potentially hurting herself or someone else, she went by ambulance to a nearby hospital where the psychiatrist evaluated her and immediately admitted.
After staying many months in a hospital and receiving post-psychiatric help, the woman returned to her old self. The modern medical solution was the most beneficial.
Then there was Bill. Bill was staying at the Salvation Army emergency shelter for men in Winnipeg, at the time, where I was a residential care worker. Bill had been standing vertically in one position for over two days. He hardly blinked or moved. The modern word for this describes him as in a catatonic state. Given his uncertain past and the potential for violence, police were on the way to take him to the hospital. In the meantime, I prayed with him. He did not move or blink throughout the prayer, but a tear began trickling down his left eye. The prayer had penetrated his innermost being. Something happened. I do not know what, but it was significant. Shortly afterward, the police took him away. I don’t know what resulted with Bill. I am sure medical intervention helped significantly.
It is not unusual to attend a hyper-Charismatic Church and see people prayed over for an emotional condition. Some who are prayed-for scream, fall to the floor and convulse. What these screams, falling, and convulsions are, I do not know. Nor do I understand what the long-term emotional results from this are. There appears to be some temporary relief but nothing permanent.
A prayer ritual, especially those aimed at expelling a demon or a demonic influence, implies at the outset that the person is bad and needs the expungement of some evil. For people suffering from depression, who often struggle with an inner voice that says, “I am not good enough” in the first place, this may give an initial temporary high, but in the long run, increase negative tendencies and inhibit full recovery.
The simple prayer formula for addressing mental illness could make people with emotional scars more skeptical. If they come to a minister or lay leader looking for emotional healing and leave unchanged, they eschew religion because of unmet expectations.
Exorcisms may be re-victimizing the already victimized. For example, some mental illnesses can trace back to sexual abuse. This condition may be a minority in the mental health community, but I have frequently encountered many people deeply impacted by such an injustice. The pain, loss, and anger are sometimes so intense that it detaches a person from certain types or all of reality. Some hyper-Charismatic or -Pentecostal persons may mistake these expressions to be demon influenced and attempt to rectify the situation through exorcism. By doing so, they have twice-shamed the person and intensified the conflict. The evil circumstances and the perpetrator that has hurt them are left untouched. The approach further reinforces the injustice and heightens the unresolved pain with no resolution. In such cases, these people do not need an exorcism; they need long-term affirmation and loving support in a healthy and stable environment.
There are occasions where prayer can liberate a person from the depths of injustice, but if improperly used, it can significantly do more harm than good.
On the other hand, the church often does get it right. Take George Munsden* for example, who has Tourette’s syndrome. For whatever reason, this syndrome caused George not only to have the tics and involuntary flailing of the arms but also could swear entire paragraphs and frequently produce the middle finger. I knew George from his Salvation Army residency and discovered he was a decent man. Mr. Munsden attended Calvary Temple — one of Winnipeg’s largest and oldest Pentecostal churches. He sat on the first bench on the balcony, muttering curse words, involuntary flailing his arms, and often producing the middle finger while the preacher spoke. No one seemed surprised nor shocked. The security didn’t even make a second glance. It was just George.
One must be cautious and not reject the supernatural world entirely. Something does occur that is beyond normal in some circumstances, but it is like playing with fire. Misused, it can damage people emotionally. One must always remember what is best for the person at hand.
There is no current answer to this tension, but let me briefly conjecture. When people were brought or came before Jesus seeking emotional healing, was He doing an exorcism, or was the narrator describing it as a demonic episode because he couldn’t think of another explanation? Were demons the default for anything that defies description? When Jesus healed, He didn’t take the time to reveal how. He restored the person with little explanation and left it for us to use in our limited vocabulary, technology, and ideas.
Perhaps, He knew that in many of these instances that a person had brain cancer, a stroke, fetal alcohol, or so many other conditions, and healed this malady. Any attempt by Him to explain the actual condition would have gone way over the people’s intellectual ability, and it wasn’t His mission to educate on the inner workings of the body. We couldn’t rationalize the phenomenon, so we merely ascribed it to be a demon – a word denoting something we don’t understand and out of our realm. This theory is far from a satisfactory solution, and I am probably revising history to fit our modern paradigm, but it is the best explanation yet.
Our understanding of the body is still in the pioneer range. There is so much more to learn. What differentiates a physical malady from a spiritual one? I don’t know.
When I see someone now with a severe emotional condition needing intervention, an exorcism prayer is no longer under consideration — though oft tempted. I now treat those in a different mental health state like George or refer them to a medical institution or specialist. When the day comes when there is more information on mental illness from a Christian framework, then I may change my position.■
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