Tag Archives: Mental disorder

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

Belief System Supports for Spiritual Abuse

We continue our survey of some of the issues regarding spiritual abuse. You can see these links at the end of this post for prior blogs and also check out Carolyn Custis James’ thoughts on the same topic: www.whitbyforum.com. In this post I want to consider some of the beliefs that may support the ongoing presence of spiritual abuse among people of faith.

Beliefs of those who abuse

In my recent trip to Rwanda, we got into a discussion with some Rwandans about husbands and wives and the “right” husbands had to demand sex. In Rwanda, the groom pays a dowry for his bride. He pays it to her family. They set a price of “cows” that she is worth. This is an old custom but one that continues even in modern Rwanda where the “cows” are kept at the bank. In some people’s minds, a man has a right to demand sex at any time because he paid for her. She is property. Sure, he treats her as a prized possession but still, he has the right to have sex whenever he wants. Here, you can see, is a considerable belief system held by those in power about their right to use others. Does something similar exist in evangelical Christianity that enables a person in power to abuse another using spiritual tactics?

  1. The leader should not be questioned. He is ordained by God and therefore speaks for God. While evangelicals and fundamentalists are not papists, they appear to maintain a similar belief that ordination means the leader speaks for truth and for God. And if someone should bring a charge against a leader, it will not be entertained without multiple witnesses. Too bad that most abuse takes place in private, without witnesses. A corollary to this belief is that when a leader abuses a less valued person in the community, it is likely the less valued person’s fault for the abuse.
  2. Important rules must be fenced/protected. The bible speaks against divorce but not in all cases. Thus, we should protect against the abuse of divorce by refusing biblical divorces for those who have the right to them and demanding reconciliation. The bible indicates ordination of men (this is how it is read in many circles). So, in order to protect against women teaching or preaching, we won’t let them have any leadership outside of Sunday School for children. Fencing the law is legitimated in order to protect against the appearance of wrongdoing.
  3. The organization is more important than the individual. If one person does bring a credible charge against leader(s), some orgs will attempt to restore the leader and push the victim on to another church.
  4. Chronic weaknesses (e.g., mental illness) are signs of spiritual flaws and are deserving of rebuke. If a parishioner struggles with chronic anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, some leaders are prone to make it clear that the primary problem is not mental illness but a lack of faith and obedience. And in light of this ongoing rebellion, the person with mental illness (and their family) are not given the same kind of care as those with physical weaknesses.
  5. Thinking is less biased than feeling. When an allegation of abuse is brought against a leader, the merits of the case are sometimes decided in favor of the leader’s logic and against the victim’s emotional arguments. It is assumed that cognitions are less impaired by sin nature than feelings/emotions. Similar to this belief is the one that says that men are more logical and accurate than women or children.

Those who are abused also maintain many of these same belief system. They feel that they are not in a position to know truth, that their feelings are distorted more than others, that their needs do not merit help, that the preservation of the institution is more important, and that they are the cause of the problems they experience.

What other beliefs have you noticed that support the acceptance and continuation of spiritual abuse?


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology, Uncategorized

Mandated reporting of violence risk?

Likely, you are participating in the current national soul-searching after the latest tragic school shooting/mass murder. In our angst we ask, “Why God?” and “What can we do to try to stop this kind of senseless killing?”

It is the second question that is on my mind right now.

Political debates will abound about gun control measures or the right to bear arms. In my humble opinion it is time to move beyond that debate and address the treatment of those who are most at risk to engage in mass killings. I have no idea about the mental status of this most recent killer but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to figure out how to better care for such individuals.

Who is at risk? A complex matter

Violence risk assessments have morphed over the years from clinical judgment (turns out our intuition wasn’t very accurate!) to an actuarial approach looking at factors like: active psychotic symptoms, family problems, history of aggression/domestic violence and or criminal behavior, social withdrawal/skills deficits, and substance abuse. But of course, there are many who have positive indicators on several of these factors who are in no danger of becoming a mass murderer. Still others meet none of these risk factors and yet become killers. [Read Randy Otto’s short paper on violence risk assessment and discussion of the historical, clinical, and environmental factors of violence risk]

One possible (partial) solution

Right now mental health professionals and educators are required to report possible child abuse. In addition, we counselors have duties to warn and protect when our clients indicate they are an imminent (meaning, immediate) danger to self or other. Sadly, many adults in high risk categories are not likely to be in treatment (due to costs, treatment availability and refusal) and may have enough sense not to make threats to those who are obligated to report.

So, what might we do to help those who do come in contact with at-risk individuals? In some states, all civilians are required to report potential child abuse. What if we develop a reporting mechanism for civilians to report those who are making statements about violent acts?

To make this procedure work, there are some additional changes we would have to enact (some of which are not simple)

  • We would have to engage in a large public awareness campaign and to train law enforcement and even mental health professional to recognize risk factors
  • We would need to develop humane but required treatment protocols
  • We would need to stop cutting public funds for mental health (and increase quality of community mental health care providers), and
  • We would need to consider limiting some of the currents rights to decline treatment when a number of the risk factors are present (this is, of course, no small matter. In this country we have the right to be insane…as long as we don’t hurt others).

Some need a rescue

Soon after the Connecticut shooting, The Huffington Post ran an op ed blog post by a mother of a mentally ill young man. It went viral as it was “a gorgeously written piece” by a mother whose son’s behavior terrified her. She well described the isolation and inability to find proper treatment and care for a son she loved but could not control. Almost as soon as her piece went public, others outed the writer as a person with mental illness who publicly blogged about wishing to strangle her children (see above link for that story). Despite her lack of judgment in prior writings, the original piece reminds us that there are many families suffering without avenues to help the ones they love. If we are going to make progress in quelling mass violence, we had better start building better mechanisms to treat the mentally ill and to support their family members.


Filed under counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

2 reasons why finding the root problem may not be a good goal for counselors

How important is it for a counselor to diagnose the client’s root problem? Consider these analogies:

Imagine being diagnosed with cancer in one part of your body but having your doctor tell you that it isn’t important to discover whether the source of that cancer lies elsewhere. You wouldn’t be happy and you would likely seek another opinion. Or, consider this analogy: you keep cutting off the tops of dandelions only to find that they keep coming back. Not a very wise decision. Instead, you find the tap-root and remove it if you really want to stop the weed from growing.

In the last week I have had three conversations about identifying the source or primary cause of someone’s emotional struggle. In each case I was asked questions about the source of the problem.

Is it a chemical imbalance? Is it the result of childhood trauma? Is the primary problem his sin?

I understand these questions. They are reasonable and important to ask. As a counselor, I am trying to assess how a particular psychological problem develops in an individual. But, maybe these questions aren’t as helpful as they first appear. Here are two reasons why we ought not put too much stock into seeking out the root problem and a suggestion for a different approach than the “why” question.

  1. “Why” questions almost always lead to a simplistic/categorical answer. Most psychological (or spiritual) problems have multi-factored roots. There are biological predispositions, experiences, behavioral choices/habits, perceptions, beliefs, etc. all working together to “allow” the problem to develop. Usually, we do not find this kind of complexity very helpful. We like to narrow things down to single or primary problems. Narrowing down to either/or categories helps us “understand” the problem and exert energy towards a single solution. However, when we demand a primary cause, we will almost always misrepresent the problem and may communicate to others a distorted image of what is taking place. Saying that a psychological problem is the result of sin or neurochemicals or family upbringing ALWAYS flattens the problem and as a result puts too much hope in any intervention.
  2. “Why” rarely leads to the most important question, “so, now what?” Let’s say that we can figure out why you struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Your mother contracted a virus during the 7th month of her pregnancy and that virus altered your prenatal brain and caused your OCD. Okay…so now what? Notice how the why question provides interesting information and possibly helpful in eliminating the problem in future expecting mothers…but as enticing as it is, the diagnosis doesn’t help much with the, “so now what do I do about it.” In fact the desire to figure out the “why” never is as clear and easy as I have just made it in the virus example and so the search for “why” doesn’t lead to the “so now what” question at all. Now, I don’t want you to think that I care little for historical data gathering. The multifactorial etiology of our problems are worth exploring. We ought to take a look at how early childhood experiences shape our current behavior. We ought to explore the possibility of a biological predisposition to our anxiety. We ought to examine how our beliefs about self, other, and God influence our current problems. However, we explore these historical facets not because they answer the “why” question but because they help us understand “how” we function and whether we want to alter some of these shaping influences.

An Alternative Approach?

I’ve just tipped my hand in the last point. How is a better question. Finding out how a particular feature (belief, habit, experience, perception, biological process, etc.) influences current life and how a person might respond to or engage differently over a problematic emotional expression is more likely to bear good fruit. Consider these examples:

  1. How does your history with pornography and secret shame influence your seeking accountability from your other men in the church?
  2. How do you react to trauma triggers and what different responses to triggers might you want to practice?
  3. How do you want to think about or assess your unwanted sexual desires and feelings?

So, asking why we do what we do or why we are the way we are is interesting but not always the most helpful question from a counselor. Instead, explore your perceptions, reactions, thoughts about what is happening and explore how you might come to feel, think, or engage the problem from a different perspective or with a different goal in mind.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, Uncategorized

Good Read: Is addiction a disease of the brain?

Over on the NPR website Alva Noe (Philosopher, UC Berkeley) writes an interesting opinion blog (aren’t they all?) about why we shouldn’t call addiction a disease of the brain. As you will see from the hundreds of comments, he surely riled a bunch of people up. Some of the comments are quite clear, others just humorous. But I commend his blog for you to read. It makes you think about how some of our language regarding addiction unhelpfully narrows down the problem, thereby making it more difficult to pinpoint all that needs to change when fighting addiction.

Is addiction a disease of the brain? Following his logic, no. Is it a disease that involves the brain? Yes. We must recognize that we are not mere machines and as a result mental illness and addiction both must be viewed from socio-cultural-biological-relational-experiential-spitual-will perspective. A lot goes into creating an addiction. We ought not single out neural structures and activity as if that says all we need to know.

However, on the flip side, to suggest the that addiction isn’t a disease or a biological problem may also send the wrong message. In fact, addicts rarely can “just say no.” By the time they seek help their bodies are working against whatever little will power they have left.

So, addiction is a disease of the person. It may not qualify as a disease that we can identify on a specific cell, but the addicted person is no longer functioning properly and thus their entire person is diseased.


Filed under counseling, counseling science

Serious mental illness and Christianity: Questions about responsibility

Today marks the end of the semester and the end of Counseling & Physiology. At the end of this course I ask students to talk amongst themselves regarding what they have learned in the course and what questions remain. The most frequent questions have to do with this:

What of a person’s struggles can be viewed as physiological; what is spiritual? What is the client responsible for?

[I should explain. We looked at problematic behaviors (e.g., cursing, aggression, etc.) after brain injury and the physiology of bipolar disorder. The class took bodily weaknesses quite seriously and recognized that sometimes our expectations of individuals exceeds capacity.]

At the end of this post I’m going to give you what I think are some better questions to ask. But first: Simultaneously, a couple of my old blog posts are getting a lot of attention these days–both having to do with the problem of serious mental illness, faith, and the response of the church. I highly recommend you skim the posts (both are incredibly short) but hang out with the comments.



These two posts are some of the most viewed and most commented on. Each and every comment reveals a world of heartache, alienation, and confusion about how one should think about mental illness, healing, responsibility, and the Christian faith. Clearly, we have not talked about this problem enough in the church–either to those with chronic mental illness or to their loved ones. Far too many are suffering alone.

Does it matter what of your problems are physical and what are spiritual?

Let’s say that you are a parent of a 3-year-old. Due to no fault of your own, your child misses their afternoon nap. It is now 6 pm and your child is both hungry and tired. She sees some candy and begins to whine for it. You know that you will feed the child in 15 minutes. You decline to give the candy and your child now has a temper tantrum. What do you do? Or, what SHOULD you do? You most likely provide mercy and kindness as you try to calm the child down. If the child screams, cries, and maybe even strikes you…has she sinned? Yes. Does it matter at the moment? Probably not so much as you acknowledge the child is limited by her lack of sleep.

Now, let’s extend the analogy. Would you treat your 40-year-old spouse in a different manner if they also had a tantrum because they were tired and they wanted dinner NOW? Of course, you would determine their moral capacity to be greater than the 3-year-old.

Back to our question…is it necessary to consider the division between spiritual and physical problems? Here’s why I think not. Problems are problems. Physical problems are spiritual problems in that we don’t do things only with our body and leave out our spirit. And spiritual problems always include the body. We don’t have spiritual experiences outside our neurons. Further, I still have to respond to the 3 or 40-year-old now (illustration above). Yes, I need to discern how to respond. Do I teach, comfort, discipline, rebuke, encourage? Am I responding with grace and mercy? Less important (though highly desirable) is my efforts in trying to keep the problem from happening again. Isn’t that really what is behind the physical/spiritual question: Who is going to make sure that x problem is taken care of?

Here are some better questions:

1. What can I do to help bring increasing comfort, hope, and encouragement–right now?

2. What response is my client capable of–right now (post hoc)?

3. What spiritual or physical interventions might be of help–right now?

4. How can I encourage my client to accept/respect their body (and its limits)–right now?

5. How can I encourage my client to see the hand of God in their life–right now?

6. What community resources and/or involvement can be made available–right now?

Notice the emphasis is on practical/mercy ministry, increasing insight, and commitment to seeing self from God’s point of view (rather than “normal”, “acceptable” as defined by church or larger community).


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology, Uncategorized