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Better understanding mental illness

Let me teach for one second on the word “merely.”

As I have understood it, the word “mere” was originally an alcohol term. (My friend, fellow warrior and student minister Paul McKenzie would appreciate this.) It referenced a completely unmixed drink. No water. No ice. No olives. Nothing but the alcohol called for. Merely vodka. Merely scotch, bartender.

“Merely” is a reference to the concept: “this and nothing more”. I will be using this term regularly in this article and I wanted to make sure we understood one another.

Now, on to the article.


Is mental illness a spiritual problem?

There are a lot of ways that this phrase can be slightly changed to make it true or untrue… and as a word person, I am finding what I feel like is sloppiness about these words and it worries me.

I think much of this is a reaction.

Often, this is the case, isn’t it?

In an effort to fix and error, or react to a problem, we often create new ones.

Here is the phrase from the past thinking that we (rightly) need to react to:judging-finger

“Mental issues are merely spiritual problems.”

Rightly so, we are beginning to see that this is an erroneous oversimplification of mental illness issues… even in the church.

If someone is experiencing the symptoms of a mental illness, they do not merely need to be a better Christian. They do not merely need to pray more, confess sin, get better at spiritual warfare, or read a few Bible verses and call me next week.

Mental illness is not just another word for sin, or a fashionable explanation for sin.

In a sermon on the 142nd Psalm, I made clear the nature of being human – and especially Christian is making the claim that we are broken.  Mental illness should hold NO stigma in the world of Jesus followers!  I make my case for that here.

However, there are still many in the church that think mental illness is simply a spiritual problem that can be fixed or solved with some more spiritual discipline.


See This Red Sign?  It is WRONG. All simple or just simpleton responses to mental illness are Naive.

This simply is not the case the majority of the time.   People with depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, ADD, addictions, anxiety disorders, etc… also need professional medical and therapeutic help. They also need long-term relationships with supporting people in order to experience freedom. Neither of these treatments exclude the other ones.

Spiritual support does not cancel out counseling. Psychiatric help does not cancel out the supporting community.

However, this, I think, reveals the error that is now being made.

Peer support groups are trying to claim that professionals are not needed.

Medical professionals are trying to make the case that churches, support systems and even counselors are not necessary.


What mental illness is not

Now, we have statements like:

“Mental illness is not a Spiritual issue.”

“Mental weakness is not spiritual weakness.”

“There are no spiritual solutions to mental illness.”

See the over reaction?

This now, divides out the person into component parts as if their different parts are not inter-related.

This has always been an error.

Why do patients in hospital rooms that overlook green growing spaces get better more quickly – all other things being equal?…because we are more than just a combination of our component systems.

So, it was an error to think that people just needed white, clean walls and the best-trained “physiologists.”   People need more.

However, do you see what happens if you react too strongly to that error? Should we take that kind of statistic as a “solution” to our mis-step in the past?

What would happen if hospitals fired all of the doctors and nurses and merely hired gardeners? A lot of people would die, but in pretty places.


Yet, what if we just put people in giant bubbles and intravenously fed them drugs to make them “better” with robots – no smiling and capable nurses… no brilliant and gentle doctors… no chaplains, nuns, friends, family visiting… and no green?

Is all we need more medications?

It is the same with this issue.


The complexity of mental illness

Of course there are spiritual, physical, mental, emotional… etc. aspects to almost any issue that we face.

Of course mental illness is a spiritual issue. It just isn’t MERELY a spiritual issue. Of course there is a Spiritual component… we are still talking about a human being, right?

However, there is also almost always going to be a physical issue as well, and practical somatic adaptations that are needed… which often includes medication…

And why not? Don’t we believe that humans are “frail creatures of dust?” Why would Christians act so strangely about the idea that our bodies do not work perfectly?

Don’t we accept as doctrine that our bodies are fragile and “perishable”? (1 Peter 1:23)

Don’t we teach as dogma that we, all like sheep, have gone astray? That we are, from a character perspective, “prone to wander”? That we have a broken aspect to us called “the flesh” that leads us to do things we don’t want to do? (Rom 7:15-17)

Of course there is a character aspect to mental illness. The discipline to avoid the triggers for addiction, or the discipline to eat properly as to avoid the food triggers, or even the decision to be faithful to attend counseling and take medication… those have a character component…

Are they merely character flaws to be fixed with discipline and hard work?


Does that mean they are merely medical conditions to be cured with medication?


Does that mean they are merely Spiritual problems to be cured with therapy and more prayer?

Well, No!

We, as humans, are incredibly complex beings – and studying us is subject to CHAOS theory for sure! You essentially cannot know and predict us all that well… we change, we have hidden depths… and we are integrated physical and non-physical… material and immaterial. We are Body, Soul, Will, Spirit, Mind, Brain… bio-chemicals and personalities.

Clearly, then, anything that goes wrong with us will include all of these aspects, at least to some degree… and so would any hope at successful treatment.

In an effort to avoid one foolish error of over-simplification, let us not make another one.

If you think mental illness is “merely” anything with a simple “solution” (if that is even an applicable word) then, well…

you ought to have your head examined.