The Mental Health Catch-22 for Churches

Do churches belong in the business of mental health care or not?  Here is one point of view from an article by Mary Rezac at the Catholic News Agency.  Bold emphasis is mine:

Maria had been struggling with some depressive and anxious thoughts for a while, although at the time, she didn’t recognize them as such. Probably because she was 14 years old.

When she shared her struggles with someone in her Catholic community, the woman told Maria that she was worried that “the devil was working his ways” in her, and used that to pressure her into going on a week-long retreat out of state.

“Sure, retreats are great,” Maria told CNA. “But pretty sure I just needed a therapist at that point in my life. And pretty sure I had already given valid reasons for why I wasn’t interested in buying a plane ticket for a retreat.”

When Catholics experience spiritual problems, the solutions seem obvious –  talk to a priest, go to confession, pray, seek guidance from a spiritual director. But the line between the spiritual and the psychological can be very blurry, so much so that some Catholics and psychologists wonder if people are too often told to “pray away” their problems that may also require psychological treatment.

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a Catholic clinical psychologist with the CatholicPsych Institute. He said that he has found the over-spiritualization of psychological issues to be a persistent problem, particularly among devout Catholics.  Source: The dangers of spiritualizing your psychological problems

The message here is loud and clear: churches need to leave the psychological heavy-lifting to the pros.  And that bit  about the devil suggests–in a somewhat new-atheist-ish way–that turning to religion with mental health concerns is backwards and superstitious.

Further on down the article, Rezac gives us what I think is a more balanced and nuanced perspective:

Dr. Jim Langley, a Catholic licensed clinical psychologist with St. Raphael’s counseling in Denver, said he tends to see opposite ends of the spectrum in his patients in about equal numbers – those who over-spiritualize their problems, and those who under-spiritualize them.

“Part of the problem is that in our culture, we have such a medically-oriented, science-oriented culture that we’ve sort of gotten away from spirituality, which causes a lot of problems,” he said.

. . . .

People who tend to ignore the spiritual aspect of their psychological problems cut themselves off from the most holistic approach of healing, Langley added.

So what happens when a person does not ignore this spiritual dimension, but instead turns to a church in search for help? Charlotte Donlon recently penned an article for the Washington Post that describes what happened to her:

During one of my manic episodes, I was convinced there was a conspiracy against me. Everyone was manipulating my surroundings to create a narrative I couldn’t figure out. I wanted to know who was in charge. I also wanted to know who was safe.

I texted my pastor at the time to see if he could meet with me. I drove to the bar next to our church on a hot June afternoon and met him at one of the tables outside. I tried to tell him my concerns, but he dismissed me and said, “Let’s just pray.”

He bowed his head and started mumbling a prayer that made no sense to me. The string of words exited his mouth and floated off like bubbles blown by a young child into the warm, humid air around me.

While he was still saying his prayer, I got up, walked to my car and drove away. I’m sure he was not prepared to interact with me — most people wouldn’t be prepared for that. But I never heard back from him.

Even after my mania had subsided, he didn’t send an email asking how I was feeling. He didn’t call. None of our elders or other leaders reached out to me either.

. . . .

I’ve been a Christian for 21 years. None of my pastors have ever mentioned mental illness in a substantive way in a sermon or during a church-wide meeting. Maybe one pastor has touched on mental illness in a few of his sermons.

I’ve never heard a pastor discuss the role the church should play in caring for those with mental illness. During times that I’ve been ill since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a pastor has never reached out to me.

Like Donlon, I can’t say that I ever remember a homily on mental health– even when the opportunity presented itself.  And my guess is that this reticence bespeaks a lack of confidence on the subject–no doubt owing to a dominant secularism in our culture that views religion skeptically and believes that science and medicine have all the answers.  Clearly it must be admitted that some mental health issues can only be handled by the medical and psychological professions. But other problems do in fact fall into a rather fuzzy area that can be legitimately claimed by religion.  And even science agrees that religion has a positive role to play in mental health care—a major point of my book.

As I show in my book, both prayer and church attendance have been linked to improved mental health.  And fasting, which is common to both eastern and western spiritual traditions, is also associated with positive mental health outcomes.  I also show that there is considerable evidence for another traditional Christian belief, namely, that sin and other forms of spiritual neglect are associated with mental illness and disorder. (Both Aquinas and Augustine espoused this biblical idea, and it’s also a major theme of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.) 

Thus, the medical community itself is discovering that religion can play an important and positive role in a person’s mental health.  Given the alarming rise in the suicide rate, this is research we cannot afford to ignore. JG


The Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke Medical School has a terrific video that summarizes the positive mental health benefits of spiritual practices.  I will be speaking there in April.  Here’s the video:

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