Can you pray your mental illness away? Seems many Christians think so

Lifeway Research has published a news item about a recent survey of conservative, evangelical Christians and their beliefs about mental illness. About half feel that with only prayer and bible study, a person could be healed

Lifeway Survey Questionfrom serious mental illness.

I suppose there may be some who answer this question in such a way as to mean that it is possible to be miraculously healed. I would agree. But is that the thinking behind those surveyed? My sense is that is not what most are thinking when they answer this way.

This most likely reveals that many Christians believe that symptoms described by the medical world as “mental illness” are only or mainly character or behavior problems.

We need a more robust theology of the body if we are going to better understand how the body influences our expression of mental illness.



Filed under christian counseling, Christianity, Psychology

8 responses to “Can you pray your mental illness away? Seems many Christians think so

  1. I am a counselor (LMHC), so I completely agree with you that we need a better theology and acceptance of mental health care among Christians. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that I recovered from a ten-year depression which included several periods of suicidality through Bible study, prayer and Christian friendships alone. Changing my theology of God and life had a profound impact on my mental well-being – on my heart – and that can come without professional intervention. I probably would have benefited from medication and counseling, and there are some mental problems which absolutely require those things. But there are also some that don’t.

    • Yes, we are not needing to make a forced choice between “doesn’t help” and “solves by self”. That has been the problem in the past. It isn’t either/or. I would not doubt your experience one bit. And we don’t have some nice little technique to determine who will be best helped by one way or the other or both…

  2. Before we develop a theology of the body I think we have to be much clearer on how the body does and does not influence mental illness; and whether or not our current understanding of mental illness is legitimate.

    Irving Kirsch has published several studies and written a book indicating the ineffectiveness of antidepressants for treating depression. See the selected bibliography on wikipedia on him for these works, especially: “The Emperor’s New Drugs” (2002) [his 2009 book has the same title] and “Listening to Prozac But Hearing Placebo” (1998). Links to both articles are free. In his book, Kirsch said that: “It now seems beyond question that the traditional account of depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain is simply wrong.” Allen Frances, the general editor for the DSM-4, which loosened the criteria for diagnosing bipolar disorder, has repeatedly and publically said that in hind sight that was a mistake; and it contributed to a significant problem of over diagnosis with bipolar disorder. Look through his postings on the Huffington Post to see this. He also published two books on problems he sees with the DSM 5.

    In the “The Heart and Soul of Change” (edited by Hubble, Duncan and Miller and in its second edition), Asay and Lambert reported on Michael Lambert’s research indicating that therapeutic outcomes can be broken down approximately as follows: 40% are due to client and extratherapeutic factors (such as ego strength, social support, etc.); 30% are due to the therapeutic relationship (such empathy, warmth, and encouragement of risk-taking); 15% are due to expectancy and placebo effects; and 15% are due to techniques unique to specific therapies. In the same book, Tallman and Bohart suggested that drawing from Lambert’s research into common factors in therapy, that: “Lambert’s figures imply that the client is responsible for 70% or more of the outcome variance.” (p. 95 of the 1st edition of “The Heart and Soul of Change”) Further in their chapter they discuss self-generated change and spontaneous recovery and indicate that several studies have demonstrated that people overcome their problems on their own. They quoted Proschaska and his colleagues who said that: “In fact, it can be argued that all change is self-change, and that therapy is simply professionally coached self-change.”

    Based upon this evidence and other studies that I have read in the literature, I would agree that it is possible “with Bible study and prayer ALONE” for individuals with depression, bipolar disorder and perhaps even schizophrenia to overcome mental illness.

  3. Hi Chuck, nice to see you at AACC. I would argue that the chemical imbalance idea wasn’t very good too. However, that doesn’t mean that adding certain chemicals is a bad idea either. Prozac can help *some* even if we don’t readily know why. I also don’t disagree with your other points about Miller/Duncan and Proschaska. But, I don’t think their description of factors involved in change points any more to reasons why than does that about use of meds. Descriptions are helpful, but we still don’t know how and why.

    The real issue is that Christians are usually even further behind in understanding the body and how it influences behavior and experience. Simplistic answers, whether from the church or Psychology Today aren’t helping…

  4. I suffered from depression and my healing was the sum of counseling, lifestyle changes and the belief that God is a healer. Ultimately it was a decision to see my faith as supernatural so that He could change me. We need psychology to diagnose and the power of Christ to heal.

    We will forever have these discussion with people polarized on either side: where one side believes that science is evil and the other that thinks that faith is ridiculous.

  5. Pingback: Can Mental Illness Be Cured With Prayer? | Renewal Christian Care

  6. JourneymanGM

    I was once in that camp. When I started suffering from depression, I felt that it was a matter of the soul, and indeed, one of the major stressors in my life was a spiritual issue. At the time I believed that going to counseling would result in me taking a pill—a physical remedy to try and solve a problem of the soul—and so I tried for some time to solve it by prayer alone.

    I think what changed me was talking with my pastor when my depression was at its worst and her encouraging me to get help, recommending one she knew would respect my Christian faith and wouldn’t try to force me to take medication as I had feared. Over time, my view of counseling changed and I did wind up taking medication (which helped), with the changed view that if my body is physically putting a drain on my soul, then my soul couldn’t fight the issues at full strength. Now I’m firmly in the other camp: hoping to pray away severe mental illness would be like hoping to pray away diabetes. It can happen through a miracle, but in general, you’re needlessly denying a resource that God has provided you with.

    I imagine many other Christians have a similar experience. Much of their belief that prayer alone could solve the problem stems not only from a misunderstanding of mental health, but also a belief that these are issues of the soul that can only be solved through spiritual help, and that counseling seeks to try to solve the problem in a way that won’t get to the root of the problem.

  7. I agree – that the word “can” is used in the poll question makes a difference, but this is still troubling.

    Perhaps we Christians/counselors should become more familiar with the passage about Paul’s thorn?

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