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Mental illness and Christianity's message of salvation
Mental illness chart

A wooden toy, a photograph and a framed doctoral degree reveal the motives of an anonymous donor who has helped fund research into mental illness and Christian faith.

The man said his father made the toy during one of many stays in a mental hospital. The photograph shows his brother at 18 wearing a winter hat in summertime, an early sign of schizophrenia. His son earned the doctorate in spite of living with severe depression.

But the items and the people they belonged to tell a bigger story “about almost 25 percent of the population in the U.S. who have some form of mental illness in their family,” he said. “It is about those families who belong to a church and realize that their loved one has spiritual battles which no one else can understand.”

He wants the research to launch a conversation and help find answers to the questions mental illness leaves in its wake -- particularly those involving faith.

Among the many questions explored in “Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith,” a survey conducted by LifeWay Research and co-sponsored by Focus on the Family, was the disparity between the opinions of the mentally ill, their families and pastors on the question of whether mental illness disrupts an individual’s ability to accept their faith’s promise of eternal life.

While a majority of their family members and pastors said they strongly believe the mentally ill will receive salvation, only 40 percent of those who suffer from mental illness agreed. According to researchers, clergy and others, the gap illustrates an ongoing struggle for faith communities to understand and help fellow believers who live with conditions including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“One of the key aspects of getting better is having hope, because mental health issues destroy hope,” said Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. “The church has hope to offer that transcends circumstances.”

Significant differences

LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, analyzed more than 1,500 responses to 76 questions to provide a snapshot of the issues that exist along the intersection of mental illness and faith.

Regarding salvation, the study reported, “54 percent of pastors, 57 percent of family members and 40 percent of individuals with acute mental illness strongly agree that someone who is initiated into the Christian faith and church and later experiences acute mental illness that keeps them from living like a Christian will still receive salvation.”

The “strongly agree” response is what Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, calls a “robust category,” more useful in illustrating differences between groups than the weaker “somewhat agree” response. He explained that the 17-point differential between the responses of family members and affected individuals illustrated a “significant difference of perception” when it comes to Christianity’s promise of salvation.

The difference likely derives from the impact mental illness has on a person’s self-esteem, said David Murray, a scholar and pastor who helped design the survey and served as liaison between the anonymous donor family and LifeWay Research.

“One of the major symptoms of (mental illness) is pessimism about oneself. When people are in the midst of it, they see very little hope,” he said. Family members are more optimistic, better able to see the bigger picture of an individual’s life.

The study showed that 20 percent of individuals with mental illness report that their disease makes it difficult to understand salvation, a statistic that further illustrates the challenge faith communities face when they seek to become more welcoming to people impacted by mental illness. However, Stetzer noted, it’s an obstacle that he hopes the study will help churches overcome.

“I think that one of the things that the Christian tradition has always believed is that the gospel is extended to everyone,” Stetzer said. “In that extension, we need an explanation of how people might respond, even those who struggle with mental illness.”

A holistic approach

As a young, headstrong preacher in the northwest islands of Scotland, Murray berated parishioners who thought of mental illness as anything other than an outward expression of sinfulness. He was “insensitive and unsympathetic,” unwilling to acknowledge the need for support groups and psychiatrists.

But when his wife became ill, no amount of prayer could cure her depression. After doctors finally provided the help required, Murray realized he had gotten mental illness all wrong.

“I call it my Damascus road experience,” Murray recalled, referencing the story of the apostle Paul’s conversion to Christianity in the New Testament book of Acts. “I became passionate to help people.”

The situation inspired a sermon series, a book and, eventually, a new vocation. Murray is now a professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Michigan, where he researches the relationship between mental illness and religious practice and writes books like “Christians Get Depressed Too.”

Murray said the key difference between his early understanding of mental illness and his work today is the realization that healing can only come through a holistic approach.

“People are physical, social, vocational, mental, as well as spiritual beings,” he said, explaining that a Christian response to these disorders has to account for all these areas.

The gap in confidence between family members and affected individuals about a sufferer’s ability to receive salvation should be partly linked to the Christian community’s historical resistance to the holistic view of mental disorders, Stanford said.

The situation has improved in recent years, he explained, with churches widely accepting the role members of the medical community need to play in treatment. But believers can still do harm to those who suffer when they imply that diseases like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are a form of punishment from God.

“The people of faith struggling with these things are sometimes told very negative things by other congregants, like that (mental illness) is a spiritual issue and they need to pray more,” Stanford said. “We tend to undermine that person’s faith by putting the whole issue in a faith context.”

Religion’s unique role

The importance of holistic thinking doesn’t mean the Christian community should be hesitant to articulate a faith-based response to mental illness, explained Kathryn Greene-McCreight, the priest associate at the Episcopal Church at Yale.

Greene-McCreight was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1990s. Although thankful that the stigma surrounding mental illness has lessened, she is frustrated that Christians have yet to offer a religious response to accompany the scientific community’s growing understanding of effective treatment plans for various mental illnesses.

“It seems to me that we’re not offering anybody any help, short of making people feel less horrible about having to go into a mental hospital” she said.

To empower affected individuals and their families, churches leaders need to do a better job of sharing the unique form of hope that comes from Christianity’s message of salvation.

“Everybody wants to offer hope. The National Alliance on Mental Illness wants to talk about hope all the time, but it’s a different kind of hope … because it depends on circumstance -- medications kicking in, therapy helping,” Greene-McCreight explained. “Christian hope is much firmer than that. It’s the bedrock.”

However, Greene-McCreight’s own experiences during the early years of her diagnosis illustrate that the Christian message has to be articulated according to one’s belief.

As an Episcopalian, she didn’t believe that her salvation was linked to the righteousness of everyday behavior. Her faith struggles still stemmed from a loss of hope, but the root cause was her confusion about her relationship with God.

“What would happen to me at the end of my life was not a huge question,” Greene-McCreight said. “Instead, my questions were ‘How do I live in this moment and how do I get to the next moment?’ and ‘If God is there right now, why isn’t God doing what I want?’“

Moving forward

Although the study outlined many areas where further work needs to be done, Murray said he did feel optimistic after reading through the results.

“A few of the statistics surprised me” in a good way, he said. He highlighted the finding that, “76 percent of pastors agree that a Christian with an acute mental illness can thrive regardless of whether or not the illness has been stabilized.”

What will be important moving forward is for faith communities to live out these claims in their interactions with the people who suffer from mental illness, Murray said, which can only happen if pastors take advantage of the wisdom offered by mental health professionals.

Focus on the Family has expanded its Thriving Pastor ministry to include a variety of resources for reaching out to mentally ill congregants. The organization’s new guide for pastors “Serving Those With Mental Illness,” offers an overview of the research and brief medical descriptions of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Coverage of the LifeWay Research study has included several additional tips for improving Christianity’s service to the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Advice included encouraging pastors to talk openly about the issue from the pulpit, print the meeting times for local support groups in church fliers and establish relationships with care providers.

And in the case of Christianity’s promise of salvation, faith communities need to remember to talk about it in terms that bring light to the darkness of mental illness, Stanford explained.

“The church has had a bad tendency to not be particularly focused on real world issues. It tends to take a spiritual high road,” he said. “But now people are asking, ‘How does that work for my daughter with depression?’ … The church has to be educated and equipped with answers.”

Stanford said that church leaders need to prepare their response even before a mental illness-relation situation occurs, building connections to mental health professionals in their community and learning to recognize distress in their congregants.

In that way, faith leaders can be ready to be part of a person’s healing, bringing Christianity’s message of hope to the recovery process.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas