On Mental Illness

Is there an elephant in the room? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

What kinds of questions would an apologist most want to answer? Wouldn’t it be the questions that people are asking the most? Who wants to bother answering a question no one is answering? That makes sense, so why are we not answering the questions people are asking the most? What questions are those? Is it the question of creation vs. evolution? No. Is it the question of if the Bible is reliable? No. It is the question of did Jesus rise from the dead? No. Is it the question of just evil in general and why a good God allows that? No. If Jeremiah Johnston’s ministry is any gauge of questions, the #1 area of questioning that comes into his ministry of the Christian Thinkers Society is the question about mental illness and all that it entails. He has some fascinating information this in his book Unanswered.

And do you remember the last time you heard a sermon from the pulpit about reaching and helping those with mental illnesses and understanding them?

I can’t either.

It’s really quite sad how we treat these kinds of conditions. If we learn that brother Jim has come down with cancer, we’ll have the church put him on our prayer chain and we’ll bring some food over to his house so his wife doesn’t have to do all the cooking and we’ll visit him in the hospital and we’ll remind him that God is with him no matter what. If brother Jim instead had depression, we’d be more prone to tell him that he should just be reading his Bible more and to have a bit more faith and oh yeah, he also doesn’t need to worry about taking any of those strange medications for depression. He just needs to rely on Jesus. (I know that not all Christians would take this approach, but too many would)

There’s a reason that mental illness isn’t talked about much in the church and that’s one of them.

I am also in a unique position to write about this. Johnston in his book writes that most people you meet with mental illness will look and seem to act just like you. I know this well because I am one of them. Mental illness does not mean you’re stupid. Many of us can be very bright. It does not mean you don’t love Jesus. Many of us have a great love of Jesus. It does not mean you lack faith. Many of us strive to walk a life of faith just like the rest of you do. It just means we have something different in our brains that affects how we act much like someone with a physical disorder has something different in their body. You would not tell someone in a wheelchair that they have a lack of faith. (Okay. Again some would, but I hope most of you wouldn’t.) They just have something in some part of their body that prevents them from moving like normal. Why say the same to someone with a mental illness?

For those who haven’t been around my blog enough, the mental condition I have as well as my wife is Aspergers, which is a form of autism. It’s my understanding that the term Aspergers is being cycled out now, but I still prefer to use it. Force of habit maybe. What does it mean to be an “Aspie” as we call ourselves and not a “neurotypical” as we call you? Well we’re all quite different, but there are a number on the spectrum who are non-verbal and incapable of speaking much if any. That’s not my wife and I. It does mean we don’t understand social situations well and can have difficulty with eye contact and we can have fixations and get obsessed with matters easily. We do not have a mild interest in anything. We usually have an all-out interest in it. When you speak to us, chances are, we will not look you in the eye. I have found for me that if my schoolwork does not have some order or structure to it, I find it difficult to do it. We are also quite prone to taking terms literally when we shouldn’t. (Amusing since I am an orthodox Preterist who does not take many passages of the Bible in the “wooden literal” sense.)

What are the statistics on this? According to the CDC:

About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. [Read summary] [Read article]
ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. [Read summary] [Read article]
ASD is almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189). [Read article]
Studies in Asia, Europe, and North America have identified individuals with ASD with an average prevalence of about 1%. A study in South Korea reported a prevalence of 2.6%. [Data table] [Read article]
About 1 in 6 children in the United States had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. [Read summary]

Chances are someone in your church is on the spectrum and in fact, while I would consider myself a Christian speaker who is on the spectrum and someone with some degree of authority in the field, I am not the only one. My friend Stephen Bedard announced that he was recently diagnosed with autism here. He has a number of books available on Amazon including one he wrote with Stanley Porter. He and I discussed how to make a church more autism friendly on my show here.

Another prominent figure who is on the spectrum is in fact Hugh Ross of Reasons To Believe. Dr. Ross has an incredibly encyclopedic memory of the things that he has read, which is something a number of people on the spectrum have and has been an advocate for awareness of autism. He also came on my show during Autism Awareness Month to talk about his life with autism and that can be found in the second hour of my interview with him here.

Of course, autism isn’t the only disorder, but before I move on to another one, I want to say something. Many times when I read someone saying something about me, they will say that I suffer with Autism or Aspergers. This is inaccurate. I live with a condition. I have some extra burdens from the condition from time to time. I do not suffer because suffering is a choice. I in fact choose to thrive with my condition and I like some of the advantages I think my different brain wiring gives me. Frankly, if there came out a cure for autism disorders tomorrow and I could be given it for free, I doubt that I would take it. This does not mean that some people do not suffer, but it does mean that suffering is not a term that should be put on someone immediately.

How about depression? We can often think that this is surely a spiritual malady. After all, aren’t we to have joy in all things? Indeed, we are, and to be fair, there are a number of things someone with depression can do to improve their mood, but at the same time, there are medications that can help as well. We could tell someone recovering from a surgery that they need to do some exercises in order to get their body back into good condition again, but that does not mean we won’t give them pain medication. I have been in the hospital before for scoliosis surgery, which means I have a degree of curvature to my spine. It was corrected by strapping a steel rod onto my spine. (I tell Allie she’s married to the man of steel.) When I got out of the hospital, I was increasingly given limited exercises to do to learn how to simply walk again, but I was also given medication because I was in a heck of a lot of pain. Why should my back condition be seen as something it’s okay to take medication for and yet depression isn’t?

So let’s get some facts clear of some things to NOT say to a depressed person.

Do NOT say anything to increase their guilt, such as saying “If you loved Jesus more, you’d feel better.” “If you prayed more, God would deliver you.” “If you read your Bible more, you’d get over this.” Now I do think all of those are good but the reality is we can ALL improve on them. I think if we love Jesus more we will do better in life. If we pray more and read our Bibles more, we will be stronger in life, but that does not mean that we will have deliverance from depression. Am I saying God cannot heal? No. Am I saying miracles cannot happen? No. I am saying that we are not guaranteed these things and it could be sometimes God does not do a miracle because He wants to show the world what He can do through flawed creatures, like we all are.

Also, do not please say such nonsense as casting a demon out of someone who has depression. It’s very easy to blame a lot of problems on demons. If all of our sin was due to demonic activity, that would mean we are not responsible for any of it. We often talk in the church about how the devil is tempting us to do XYZ. Frankly friends, the devil doesn’t have to do anything to have me be tempted to sin. It’s pretty easy to find temptation all on my own. This is indeed an area where we all, depressed or not, have to learn to practice the spiritual disciplines. That is also a battle that ultimately never ends because we are all always continuing in sanctification.

And also, do not try to help the person seriously if you are not trained in doing so. The reality is those who try to “fix” someone with a mental condition can be more prone to doing a whole lot more harm than good, despite what their intentions may be. Of course, you should seek to help someone who is struggling with this and one of the best ways that you can do this is in fact by listening to such a person. You don’t necessarily have to offer advice. If the person is okay with it, you can give them a hug or something and you can offer to pray with them. Many of these people would just like someone to listen to them and they can know they’re not alone. They don’t have to carry the burden alone.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Each year about 6.7% of U.S adults experience major depressive disorder. Women are 70 % more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime. Non-Hispanic blacks are 40% less likely than non-Hispanic whites to experience depression during their lifetime. The average age of onset is 32 years old. Additionally, 3.3% of 13 to 18 year olds have experienced a seriously debilitating depressive disorder.

Depression is much more common than you realize and with it we could include other conditions like bipolar disorder. Having depression or a condition like it does not mean you are a bad Christian. It does not mean God is angry with you. It does not mean that God is punishing you. We would not say this is the case immediately if someone had cancer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with evaluating your life when pain strikes and seeing if there is anything you need to work on, but that does not mean we should jump to the idea that all suffering you have is because God does not care about you or is actively angry with you.

If you want to help someone like this, be in it for the long haul. There are no quick fixes save a miracle of God and you cannot bring that about on your own. Be prepared to walk and talk with the person who is suffering from depression and mainly be a friend and just listen to them. Of course, you can give advice from time to time, but make sure the person is really open to the advice. Fortunately, more churches are starting to open up to this kind of thing. This is especially the case since so many churches have groups now such as Celebrate Recovery to help people overcome any problems that they have.

Also, people might not necessarily get over something like this. It can be a lifelong battle. One time I took my wife to a Weight Watchers meeting to help her in her dieting. I know about the organization that everyone who is a teacher in the program or a leader in some capacity has been through the program. Many of them you would never guess by looking at them and I asked a lady at the counter “So you all struggled with weight loss?” She immediately corrected me “struggle with weight loss.” This is why you don’t go to an AA meeting and hear someone say “I used to be an alcoholic.” Instead, they say “I have been sober for X years.”

With this, we must go down a darker path still and realize that many times, someone with depression will be prone to committing suicide. Let’s not hold back at one area here. Suicide is a sin. It is wrong and it is condemned by Scripture since Scripture prohibits murder. Still, there is no Scripture that says suicide is the unpardonable sin. There is no Scripture that says that if you commit suicide, you are bound for Hell. That does not at all mean that we should take suicide lightly. We should realize that like any other sin, we should seek to prevent it from taking place and the reality is, we can do that.

For those struggling with this, this is never the answer. In fact, someone who sees a loved one commit suicide never fully recovers. Most of us remember the news about Robin Williams committing suicide. When my wife and I were dating, I brought over the movie Patch Adams for us to watch and laugh over together. Now we suspect we will never be able to watch it again. Closer to the Christian community was the fact that a couple of years ago Pastor Rick Warren’s son committed suicide. Some of you may disagree with Rick Warren on some theological issues but this is not the place to discuss those. Rick and Kay Warren wrote about their struggles here and there is a fund to help fight mental illness here.

The effects of suicide never go away. I heard of a man in his 60’s whose Dad died by suicide when he was 8 and to that day, the man still asked everyday why his Dad did that. He didn’t understand. Why did his Dad not want to be a part of his life? You can learn to go on living after a loved one commits suicide, but you never really get over it. In fact, if a person commits suicide, they will increase the chances that a loved one of theirs will commit suicide. Please. If you are struggling with this, contact a health care professional immediately or call the National Suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Please go and like their page. They somehow use Facebook to pinpoint locations to better help people. Their page can be found here.

Also included in this could be cutters. These are people who struggle with depression and relieve it by giving themselves bodily injury with things like knives, scissors, etc. This is also something that we should not accept in the church. Still, while we do not approve of the action, we should have compassion on those who struggle. Some of you might be hearing about cutting and think that that doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t have to make sense to you. It is just the way that it is.

When American Sniper came out, PTSD became a major topic. It’s a shame that so many people who go and fight for our country come home and do not get the treatment they need when they start having flashbacks of a war they fought in. They can have night terrors where they wake up screaming and could even in a moment of panic hurt someone around them. This isn’t just veterans. Anyone who goes through a major trauma of some sorts could come down with PTSD. There can also be a localized PTSD. As a small child I went to the beach with my parents and while out in the ocean, suddenly found myself underwater thanks to the undertow. To this day, I am terrified of water, much to my wife’s chagrin, and as logical as I try to be elsewhere, I start screaming and panicking in a swimming pool. One time she asked me to walk from one end of the pool to the other with her and even near the edge. The greatest depth I’d get to was about 5 feet. I’m about 5 foot 7. Three times on the walk down there I asked her if she’d taken out a life insurance policy on me recently. Is it embarrassing? Yep. Do I look forward to a day when I can enjoy the water with my wife? Yep. It’s a localized PTSD I have though where I panic about drowning. It was only a few years ago I was able to wash my face in the shower. That’s how severe it is.

I can only imagine it’s worse for far more traumatic events, such as being a child and witnessing a school shooting, or being a soldier and watching your buddies die in a horrible event. This kind of situation can be treated. Of course, barring a miracle, it will take time and it does not mean a person will ever be completely over it.

The great tragedy in all of this is that the church is not seen as a place where people with mental illness feel safe. In fact, the church can shun people who have a mental illness and when we do that, we cut away from the body some of the people who can best show us the power of Christ. Many of us think it can be hard to face reality when we have bills to pay, unemployment, health problems, etc. Imagine facing reality where your own brain many times can be your enemy and you live with that constant enemy. People who are able to keep fighting on in the midst of this should be our heroes and receive our support.

This is especially worse since we are supposed to be Jesus to everyone and in no way can I picture Jesus shunning someone because they have a mental illness. How can we truly show the love of Christ if we are shunning someone for something they cannot help? Now of course, we can certainly agree they can do something about their problems, such as learning a good coping skill, but that does not mean we blame them for their problems or tell them they have a lack of faith. Maybe, just maybe, if the church can start being the church we can end the stigma against mental illness and give the people of the world a safe place that they can go to.

Please consider helping those with mental illness today.

In Christ,
Nick Peters