Reflections on the Church and Severe Mental Illness Stigma

November 4, 2014 Becky Oberg

There was one fatal flaw in my plan to wake up screaming--I wasn't asleep.

This was not a nightmare, at least not in the literal sense. Although surreal, this was real—I was really pinned to my apartment floor, three people from Waco’s Antioch Community Church really were yelling at Satan and said people really were attempting to perform an exorcism without my consent. Later, I would take the incident up the church’s chain of command: the burden of proof never on me to prove it happened, but to prove that I was not “manifesting demons.”

This is an extreme example of the mental illness stigma often seen in the Church.

What Not to Say to Someone with a Severe Mental Illness

Studies show that religious faith can speed recovery from depression, possibly by offering one hope. Sadly, one’s place of worship may not be the sanctuary one hopes it to be. Here are a few of the comments I’ve heard from misinformed people of faith:

“You foolish person! You’ve just called God a liar because you don’t have the joy of the Lord.”

Sometimes the church can be a support for people with severe mental illness but other times all people find is mental illness stigma in the church.“Depression is straight from the pit of Hell.”

“If you just had enough faith and truly wanted to be healed you would be.”

“You need to go off your medication and trust God for your healing."

“Do you feel like you’re under demonic oppression? . . . I know someone who has a chemical imbalance and it’s demonic oppression.”

“A relationship with Jesus Christ is the only way you can truly be set free from depression because he not only can heal the spirit, but he heals the soul, which makes up your mind, your will and your emotions.”

The Reality of Mental Illness Stigma

All too often, Christians associate mental illness with a character flaw at best and demonic influence at worst. Neil and Joanne Anderson describe this situation well, writing:

“Consider what happens, however, when a prayer request is given by someone who is depressed. A gloom hangs over the room and a polite prayer is offered: ‘Dear Lord, help Mary get over her depression. Amen.’ The Christian community has not been taught how to respond to emotional problems. There is no cast to sign, and everyone is silently thinking (or the depressed believe that others are thinking), Why doesn’t she just snap out of it? I wonder what skeletons she has in her closet? If she would just pray and read her Bible more she wouldn’t be in such a state. No sincere Christian should be depressed. There must be some sin in her life. These critical thoughts are not helpful to the depressed person and often aren’t true. Contributing to a person’s guilt and shame does not help mental functioning. We must learn to reflect the love and hope of God who binds up the brokenhearted.”

What to Aim for with Stigma and the Church

I interviewed pastors from around the country about the stigma attached to mental illness in the church. Rev. Ryan Ahlgrim of Richmond, Virginia, wrote:

"This is the real heart of the matter, to be loved and treated with dignity. Mental illness often puts up blocks in relationships and friendships. But this is because we want relationships that are easy, that benefit us, or that feel productive. But I believe that the presence of mental illness, as well as other disabilities, reminds us that life and relationships are not about productivity and cost-effectiveness and convenience. We’re here to love and be loved. I do not have it in my power to fix my mentally ill friends. Some of them will continue to do things that are, from my perspective, counter-productive. So do I give up on them, or do I give up my need to have a ‘productive’ relationship? Can I simply enjoy who they are and being their friend? I have decided to enjoy them, value them as full human beings, and offer ‘nonproductive’ kindness. We are all, in God’s eyes, the recipients of undeserved grace. So none of us has a value-advantage over another. Let us treat each other with grace.”

You can also find Becky Oberg on Google+, Facebook and Twitter and Linkedin.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2014, November 4). Reflections on the Church and Severe Mental Illness Stigma, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 29 from

Author: Becky Oberg

November, 20 2014 at 3:14 pm

My son get kit out from catholic School saint Raphael in Pawtucket RI just 30 days before finishing 11 grade I ask for help from the principal all they have to say was He needs to leave not humanity
after he went his entire life there, because his Diagnostic mentally ill how can
He trust He got worse and still can't recover I have been looking for help at couples Churches I do believe God is in Our Life but What is the church just sits and status but what also is behind false people

November, 16 2014 at 2:31 pm

Oh, yes, and like MarlenaM, I find myself to be healthier when I am regularly attending church! It uplifts my spirit! I recommend giving it a try for anyone who might be able to consider church as a source for spiritual food and enlightenment. It is also wonderful to have people treat you with agape love and respect.

November, 16 2014 at 2:27 pm

I have been Methodist, a member of a Unity Church, Non-denominational,a Baptist,and back to United Methodist. I have been a bit around the map so I don't believe that my opinion can be neatly pigeon holed!
I don't believe that it is as much a matter of churches not understanding mental illness as much as it is people not understanding mental illness. Thankfully, I have not been held down and had demon exorcism done on me. That would definitely be a traumatic experience for me. And, since I already have anxiety and trauma issues, it would be potentially destructive to me. But, I have had my own experiences with being misunderstood by 'church people'. I have learned to be more careful who I share my information with and to look for people who are qualified to be my witnesses.
I believe that I would like to write my own article of this so that I can spend some concentrated time and thought on this issue.
Also, I don't believe that the author intended for this to be a Christian or church bashing column, but unfortunately the material may inspire that response.
I am a Christian from the South, though I spent almost half of my life in very Liberal Southern California, San Diego.

November, 15 2014 at 8:14 pm

BPD & Depression. this is comments made to me by well meaning church goers:
"despare is a sin" (even after losing a child)
As an involuntary patient in a psych ward, after an OD, I was told: "This hospital is full of demonic activity, you have to get out of here a.s.a.p. Discharge yourself"
"you are an embarrasment"
"You lack faith"
"You're not putting God first"
"You need to pray & read the word"
"Faast it out!"
ER NURSE whispered in my ear: "You're wasting our time & resources, do it properly next time"
"why don't they just lock u in a room with a loaded gun"
"Just walk into the surf & take a deep breath"

November, 15 2014 at 9:56 am

This is one case where churches really are like families- some are completely backward, dysfunctional, and uneducated, some are actually abusive, and some are wonderful, healthy, amazing places of healing.
I'm fortunate enough to belong to one of the later of these types. My church's counselors are professionally educated by actual psychiatrists. If they suspect a severe mental illness is at play, they refer counselled folks to trusted professionals in the community. They also follow up to encourage parishioners to seek the help they need when appropriate.
More and more churches are discovering the necessity of professional help when it comes to counseling, to avoid stories exactly like the one shared by the writer.
Do we use warfare prayer, and believe that demonic influence can play a part in a spiritual life? Absolutely. We also recognize that's not the only force at play, and, probably most importantly, that we can not always discern what's going on- whether it's spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical, and rather than try to 'diagnose" someone's illness, it's best to leave that job to the people who've spent their educations and careers studying the human brain.

November, 10 2014 at 4:53 am

I don't believe I really got better with bipolar disorder until I found my church. Having an active spiritual life and relationship with God which is what my church teaches has really helped me.
My church has its own counseling center staffed with highly professional counselors. I am receiving counseling there for free because I am on disability and am a member of the church.
The church is part of the Southern Baptist Fellowship which one would not normally associate with a progressive stance towards mental health.
So, churches are not all backwards or bad. Help is where you find it!

November, 10 2014 at 4:45 am

DITTO !!!I live in s texas too and you are so right! Vegan liberal thinking non christian I don't fit. I very happy for that :)

November, 4 2014 at 1:23 pm

People won't like this general Christians are the least educated of the religious sects. Especially, in our Southern states and the mid-west. The Jews and Catholics are far more in tune with religious history and many other religions take serious education as extremely important. In America the "kids" do what ever "mom and dad" said to do and were taught never to question it. God, forbid one expands their mind! For this reason I do not practice nor subscribe to a "dogmatic" religion. There is a bit of good in all religions but NONE should claim ONLY THEY are the path to God or Right and Wrong. Having, sadly, retired in South Texas I have observed that I am best to NEVER discuss politics or religion! I'm a Liberal Vegetarian! Few know that here or I would risk getting tarred and feathered; so your experience does not surprise but reminds me not to attend ANY church here and keep my health issues and thought; of a higher plain, to myself. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a reply