There was good news and bad news in LifeWay research that probed whether Protestant churches in America were ready to minister to people suffering from mental illness.
Good news? Only 21 percent of people who attended worship services once a week disagreed with this statement: “If I had a mental health issue, I believe most churches would welcome me.” Alas, 55 percent of those who never went to church disagreed.
More bad news? Nearly half of self-identified born-again and evangelical Protestants said prayer and Bible study alone could defeat schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses.
To suffering people that sounds like, “Take two Bible passages and call me in the morning,” according to the Rev. Todd Peperkorn, author of “I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression.”
Many pastors and counselors still think mental illnesses are spiritual problems caused by “sinful choices” alone, instead of complex puzzles of brokenness in body, mind and spirit, he said, at a Lutheran Public Radio conference earlier this summer in Collinsville, Illinois.
Thus, they believe mental illness is the “result of a lack of obedience. And so, if you could only manage to obey God a little more, a little better, then any mental illness that you had would magically go away.” This leads to a blunt prescription: “Sin less! Got that? All of your problems are going to go away if you would just stop sinning. So get on with that. ... You kind of turn Christianity into Weight Watchers.”
Peperkorn stressed that he has seen this hellish struggle from both sides -- as a pastor and as a patient with clinical depression. Just over a decade ago, he said, he found himself working his way through Holy Week to Easter, while also pondering the end of all things -- as in suicide.
“I was contemplating and planning my own death,” the Rocklin, California, pastor told the hushed crowd. During his darkest days he was haunted by this thought: “If I take this little (antidepressant) pill, this little pill is going to be a sign that I no longer trust God. That is kind of what I had been taught to believe. ... If I take this pill and then I assume that this pill will do its work, then that must mean that I’m not going to trust God to heal me.”
Peperkorn said he found his way through the valley of the shadow with the help of a Muslim doctor, a trained Christian counselor and another Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor. He said this isn’t an unusual team of caregivers, based on his experiences both as a pastor and a patient.
Religious leaders should not be silent about the role that sin plays in the lives of broken people, he stressed. However, they must help people find professional care that addresses issues of the body and mind, as well as the soul.
“If you had a broken leg ... no one would expect you to run a race,” he said. “But what if you have a broken mind? Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?”
While many religious people focus on spiritual issues, and that’s that, Peperkorn also noted that many secularists insist on seeing mental illness in strictly physical terms. From this materialist point of view, spiritual beliefs are often viewed as a sign of trouble, a sign of sickness. Thus, the “tie and connection between the body, the mind and the soul is divorced and ripped apart,” he said.
The goal is for more pastors to help suffering people find the care that they need from doctors and counselors who are willing to approach mental illness on multiple levels, accepting that faith is part of the equation.
“When someone is sick or in need, we do not have to act like we can do everything, because we can’t,” said Peperkorn. “That may mean a psychiatrist. That may mean a psychologist or a counselor. That may mean their general practitioner. Whomever it is, let people serve in the vocation where God has put them, because that is how God does his work -- through those people.
“We can be free to not have to do everything and be everything. ... I do not have to understand everything in order to love my neighbor.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)