Reactions to Mental Illness

There remains an unfortunate stigma attached to any form of mental illness; the thought is widespread that if someone is depressed or suffering from mental illness of some kind it is the result of weakness or indicative of some moral and spiritual problem. The thought is that what the person needs to do is to simply “snap out of it” or “get a grip” or “grow up” or “stop whining” or pray more, or confess their sins.

None of these sorts of thoughts, no sense of shame, would ever accrue to someone who is diagnosed with cancer, or meningitis. No one tells a parapalegic that they are suffering for their sins, or that they need to “snap out of it.” No one suggests that a person with pneumonia needs to make a choice to be well.

But a depressed person, a suicidal person: “if only they weren’t so sinful” or “maybe it’s the way they were raised.” A child suffering from ADHD, well—“kids today are overmedicated” and “if they were just properly disciplined” and “its because kids aren’t being spanked today.” And so on.

Oddly, no one ever speaks that way to a child in wheelchair; no one goes to Children’s Hospital and berates the kids getting chemo and radiation or suggests if only they had been raised better, or maybe if their parents weren’t such bad people—because obviously they must be bad or their children wouldn’t be sick.

And so forth.

Yes, it annoys me; I have two children who suffer from mental illness. It is not their fault any more than it would be their fault if they had chicken pox. If I told someone that one of my children was in the hospital for pneumonia, they’d be concerned and pray and be very supportive. If I say my child is in the hospital because she was talking about committing suicide—the reactions are sometimes quite different.

There are many Christians who view mental illness as a spiritual problem. There are churches who preach that psychology is evil, that all that really needs to be done is for people to read their Bible’s more and get themselves right with God.

Such churches, such church leaders, remind me of this:

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

It was a common thought among many in Jesus’ day that if a person had leprosy, if they were blind, if they were deaf, then, they must be sinners. Few people today believe that illness is the consequence of a lack of faith or evidence of sin. Few people today judge someone because they caught the flu.

But when it comes to mental illness, many remain barbarians, both Christians and not.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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