The church’s mental illness misconceptions

Many churches neglect ministering to the mental ill or their families. Glaring misconceptions about mental illness feed the neglect.

Fear feeds the lack of concern for mental illness in the congregations. Pastors and congregants fear that a mentally ill person in their midst might disrupt the service or the sanctity of their worship. Or possibly worse.

Church goers may not consider, or believe, one in five families in their church likely deals with mental illness in their family. Current Information from the National Alliance for Mental Illness, NAMI, declares approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—10 million, or 4.2%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.1

Two glaring misconceptions prevent churches from playing an active, or even a support role, in this pervasive disease.

Misconception 1

A third of Americans – and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians – believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness, according to a recent survey by Nashville-based LifeWay Research.  A classic misconception is equating the need for medication as a sign of weak faith. Another associates difficult mental illness symptoms as a “spiritual attack” from demonic forces and they must engage in “spiritual warfare” to “resist the devil” by quoting scripture, intercessory prayer to rebuke the “enemy,” and just “trust God.” These only reinforce anxiety and bring about spiritual exhaustion.2

Misconception 2

Other church folks and pastors don’t believe medication helps heal mental illness. Some pastors and their congregations believe the need for medications to manage mental illness is a sign of weak faith.

If we apply the same thinking to lung cancer, chemotherapy won’t help a patient survive. Should we, engage in “spiritual warfare” to “resist the devil” by quoting scripture, intercessory prayer to rebuke the “enemy,” and just “trust God” to cure cancer? Of course not. While lung cancer is definitely an illness, so is forms of depression and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.  All those are documented, medically diagnosed brain disorders.  Diseases of the brain.

The first step we have to take in my opinion is convince churches that mental illness is just that–an illness. Like Multiple Sclerosis. Or diabetes. Or heart disease. Like these diseases, mental illness has no cure. It can, at best, be managed by proper medications, accurate diagnosis and therapy.

Of the more than 1,000 pastors surveyed by LifeWay Press only about 16%speak about mental illness from their pulpits once each year.

The stigma of mental illness is alive and well in the church. We need to do more to educate pastors and their congregations about the dire need to partner with them in ministering to the mental ill and their families.

The church is certainly not following Jesus’ example. Jesus embraced the sick, no matter what their affliction. What about the woman with the hemorrhage Jesus healed when she touched his garment Matthew 9:20-22, The blind man at the pool of Siloam  John 9:6-7,  The crippled man. Mark 2:9-12(a), the ten lepers Luke 17:12-16.

Rather than shun the mentally ill, or ignore their sickness, the church remains in an ideal position to help the mentally ill and minister to their families.

The question remains, will we ever?

1Serious Mental Illness (SMI) Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from:



About Steven Sawyer

God blessed me with the gift of writing. Mom told me I wrote paragraphs in second grade when others were learning to write sentences. I spent more than three decades in professional writing gigs. For the past eight years I've combined my passion for writing with my love for the Lord. He and I write a Christ-centered, family-friendly blog to glorify God Monday-thru Friday at My wife and I have four grown children and two precious granddaughters we co-parent with their mom. I'm a Galatians 2:20 disciple of Christ seeking to allow Christ to live His life in me, through me, and as me.
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2 Responses to The church’s mental illness misconceptions

  1. ptl2010 says:

    The love of God constrains us to love those whom the Lord brings across our paths in church and outside.
    These include those who are mentally distressed and ill who firstly are in need of a personal touch from the Lord.
    To this end they may need our attention, time, empathy, fellowship, ears, patience, discernment.
    Where the cause is a physical deficiency, they must be encouraged to benefit from medical research that is in practice and ethics not contrary to the Bible.
    Where it is discerned that there is evil possession, oppression and warfare, those who are gifted and empowered in spiritual deliverance should be harnessed to lead the person to repentance of sins, acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, release from the grip of evil and victory in Jesus.
    God loves those who are mentally ill, disturbed and spiritually attacked. We need to love them too.

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