This is the first of a two part series on mental illness in the church. Next Saturday, pastors will explore how the modern church can better come alongside those suffering from mental illness.
By Riley Manning
TUPELO – In recent decades, an insidious new foe has crept its way into church pews across the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 9 percent of adult Americans from every walk of life imaginable suffer some form of depression or anxiety disorder. Worldwide, these disorders are estimated to affect around 5 percent of the global population.
“I’ll tell you,” said Bishop Clarence Parks, pastor of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance. “These issues have a real heavy presence in the church world. They affect family relationships, work relationships, you name it.”
Parks said while the Bible does not directly mention depression, scripture does speak quite a bit on anxiety, and other forms of mental illness.
The Rev. Will Rambo, teaching pastor at The Orchard, and the Rev. Terry Garrett, pastor of King’s Gate Worship Center, said perhaps the passage that deals most directly with mental illness is the story of the man inhabited by a “legion” of demons in chapter five of the book of Mark.
Rambo said pastors differed over whether to see the demoniac as a man possessed by a literal spirit or as someone suffering from an extreme mental illness like schizophrenia.
“Most see it as a case of genuine possession because Jesus casts the spirits out into a herd of pigs, and the man is healed,” Rambo said. “But either way, it’s a conversation about spiritual authority.”
The chapter opens describing the demoniac dwelling among the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones, a detail, Garrett said, that is strikingly modern.
“I’ve worked with sex abuse victims who cut themselves to relieve the pressure of their inner torment,” Garrett said. “Interesting, too, that the Greek word for ‘tomb’ is the same word for ‘memory.’”
Tony Caldwell, a Tupelo-based counselor and psychiatrist, said thinking about mental illness as a demon inside but not part of a victim is actually a pretty accurate way to describe conditions of depression and anxiety.
“Think about complexes as things that root themselves inside someone and cause them to have a disjointed perception of reality,” he said. “The effects are much the same as a demonic spirit. Insecurities are internalized, and from behind a piece of glass you can watch your life crumble.”
Holding it together
But in Parks’ experience, church members are often likely to look down on a victim of mental illness. The generation of men he was raised under, he said, was very reserved about airing their feelings and problems. In a society largely synonymous with the church, the stifling of emotions made its way into matters of faith. Congregants who suffered from emotional problems were seen as lacking in spirit.
“When I was growing up, it was almost a sin to go to the hospital,” Parks said. “The church had a bad point of view, a point of view that felt all you had to do was pray to get yourself together. Church people usually want everyone to think they’re OK when they’re not. They’re afraid to show their vulnerability.”
The Rev. Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James Catholic Church, said one of the biggest strides in addressing mental illnesses is the recognition that they are a physiological problem.
“You wouldn’t judge someone with a physical injury, someone who’s lost a foot or something,” Dall said. “The Catholic church recognizes demonic possession. The hard part comes in finding the lines between physical, mental, and spiritual health.”
In addition, Parks said, the church has benefited in understanding from the presence of counselors and psychologists in the congregation.
“One of the best things we can do is know when to refer someone to a professional, and to do so discretely,” he said. “The church has come around to realizing that sometimes God works through earthly institutions.”
Parks recalled Elisha, who even after raising a man from the dead, “fell sick and died.” He also pointed to John 9:6, when Jesus mixes his saliva with mud, and uses it to heal a blind man, and to the pool of Siloam in John 9:7.
“Elisha shows us that even the most holy men are susceptible to natural illness,” Parks said. “When Jesus heals the blind man, he could have just snapped his fingers, but instead he uses spit and mud. To me, that’s a combination of the divine and natural, earthly elements to achieve healing.”
But it’s important to know, Garrett said, that one isn’t much use without the other.
“A spirit acts out its nature in the physical realm. The two are in tandem,” he said. “Physical, emotional, or spiritual, we have to find the root of the problem, and medical information is crucial to doing so. The church isn’t against medicine, but the physical is not the ultimate. The ultimate is the totality of being found in being saved.”