Rising Awareness of Mental Health Issues Among Evangelicals

On April 5, 2013, the evangelical church in America, known for its generally strong belief in and commitment to Biblical inerrancy and sufficiency, was rocked from its slumber on mental health issues when the son of beloved pastor Rick Warren tragically committed suicide.

Matthew Warren, 27, had struggled for years with issues such as a borderline personality disorder and depression. According to his parents, Rick and Kaye, they had engaged these battles for years with Matthew, loving on him, and ensuring that he had access to quality mental health care and counseling.

Still, the day they had long feared would come, finally arrived. Their son had taken his own life. 

In the aftermath, they were left not only with the task of prayerfully mending their broken family, but, they were compelled to see to it that Matthew's death would become a point of constructive dialogue for Christians in America. 

The evangelical church in America, with exceptions of course, has proven its commitment to "rightly dividing the word of God," but it has had difficulty rightly dividing the issues that surround mental health and mental illness.

LifeWay, a research and publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently issued a report in which it said that 48% of evangelicals in America believe that "Bible study and prayer alone can heal people with serious mental illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia." In the same report, respondents also indicated a majority belief that the church in America should, "do more to prevent suicide."

While I applaud LifeWay for taking up this issue, and for investigating the general mood of evangelicals in America, I have some thoughts concerning the report that I'd like to add:
  1. The report, in my estimation, reflects a continued lack of understanding of the issues surrounding mental health and mental illness. For example, according to the report, well over half of evangelicals believe that bible study and prayer alone can bring healing to those who suffer from mental health issues, while a majority also believe that the church should do more to prevent suicides that are presumably linked to mental illness. Is this to say that a majority of evangelicals in America believe that those afflicted with mental illness must simply pray harder, and study longer?
  2. The most loaded question in the report, in my opinion, is the one that addresses Bible study and prayer as the hope for those struggling with mental health issues. I didn't like the wording or the presentation of the question, because it takes an incredibly complex issue and reduces it to a dangerously simple question. Evangelicals, rightly committed to the word of God, but not always well versed in mental health issues, are almost certainly going to affirm that Bible study and prayer alone can heal mental illness. This is not a surprising outcome, and furthermore, not an incorrect belief, in and of itself. What the question seems to convey, but does not clarify, is whether the respondents believed that only prayer and bible study should be applied where mental illness is present. In other words, one can believe that prayer and Bible study alone can heal mental illness, while not believing that these are the only two options which ought to be applied.
  3. The LifeWay report repeatedly uses the term "mental illness," and, for the purposes of the survey, groups depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia into one category that it describes as "serious conditions." This, in my opinion, is an over-simplification of the named conditions, particularly where depression is the issue. For example, a person may suffer from what appears to be depression with underlying biological causes, or they may suffer from a depression which was brought about by circumstantial factors, where there is no reason to suspect a biological cause. Furthermore, the depression may or may not be "serious" in terms of the level of suffering. Therefore, to group depression into the same category as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, two conditions which are indeed serious, and which are believed to be organically driven issues, is too loose of an approach, and feeds into the ongoing unfamiliarity with the issues.
  4. Evangelicals in America have been sold, in my opinion, on two grievous errors which originate in two distinct camps: a) the anti-organic Christian camp, which denies the organic component of mental health issues, because it fails to grasp the relationship between body and soul, and b) the secular approach to mental health which finds its roots in a Darwinian theory of evolution, and a "disease-only" model of psychology which seeks, therefore, to excise the reality of sin, its effects, and the corresponding need for a Savior.
The points above are not exhaustive, but serve as brief examples of the issues that the church faces in America. The LifeWay report and its respondents are right to identify the need for a broader, more comprehensive response to mental health and mental illness issues. Regardless of the identifiable causes of problematic emotions and behaviors in people, it is undeniable that the church ought to be a place of refuge and unsurpassed hope for both the sinner and the sufferer, as it learns to better embrace the realities of the brokenness of our bodies, and the hope that the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers to those in despair.

I am convinced that counseling rightly belongs to and in the church, but my conviction goes well beyond the woefully insufficient "take two verses and call me in the morning" approach. 

For biblical encouragement in all of this, I look to passages such as 1 Timothy 5:23, where Paul instructs Timothy, concerning some physical ailments, to not drink only water, but to also drink "a little wine" in seeking relief. In raising this point, I'm not inviting a debate on alcohol. I am, however, acknowledging that Paul did not tell Timothy to simply attend another Bible study, and pray harder in seeking a cure for what ailed him. Instead, Paul acknowledged a physical ailment, and identified a potential source of physical relief. Why would the church today refuse to extend a similar form of relief to sufferers of true mental illness, where appropriate?

The good news for us today is that there is a movement within the evangelical church, otherwise known as the "biblical counseling movement," which is, with increasing precision, seeking to better understand the connection between body and soul, true mental illness versus problematic emotions and behaviors brought about by sin, and the appropriate forms of relief and treatment. At its best, it's neither given to naivety, nor given to a Freudian worldview.

Within this counseling model, is a growing source of hope for those locked into seemingly inescapable patterns of sin, or seasons of intense suffering brought about by a host of causes for which they had little to no control. Regardless of the position, the Gospel is held out as the ultimate source of compassionate hope and healing, whether there is a need for medical intervention, or not.

For these and other reasons, I'm grateful for the courage of the Warren family in confronting the church with the realities we face. I'm grateful for organizations such as LifeWay, which are refusing to ignore this once frowned upon topic. And, I'm grateful for the grace of God in the biblical counseling movement, which is increasingly lifting from the pages of Scripture a truly biblical approach to counseling, psychotherapy, and mental health issues.

For too long, the church has submitted herself to the secular sciences in near humiliation, behaving as a bride who is ashamed of her husband, when all along, He held the keys to hope for not only the age to come, but also the age in which we presently live.

While we have not yet arrived, there are indications of a movement in the right direction. And, that movement may begin with a rising awareness not only of the need, but of the hope found in the Good News, properly joined together with a more accurate understanding of the body and soul.

For the sake of our testimony, the glory of God, and the souls of the people for which we are called to provide care, let's pray that we can finally start to get this right.