Conservative Christians and Mental Illness

I recently read a handout from a conservative Christian college’s psychology class likening sending someone with eating disorders to a eating disorder clinic to sending someone with a pornography problem to a pornography clinic. In so many words, it set up vomiting as a sin to be rebuked from Scripture like pornography. It was stunning to read, and my heart immediately ached for those struggling through very real mental health issues who were shamed away from secular medical intervention at that college. Though much good progress has been made on mental health issues and the believer by way of organizations like CCEF, there is obviously still a long way to go.

Here is the key – the brain, like the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the heart, is an organ. It is the most complex organ in the human body, made up of blood vessels and tissues and an incredible number of nerve cells. Just as lungs need blood flow, the brain needs blood flow. Just as clots in the blood around the heart cause heart attacks, clots in the blood around the brain cause stroke. The same physical dynamic that causes my mid and lower body to feel exhaustion after a night of missed sleep or a missed meal cause my brain to feel exhaustion. As a type 1 diabetic, the loss of my pancreas’ ability to produce insulin that affects my kidneys also affects my brain. The brain is an organ, and as my heart, lungs, kidney, and pancreas can suffer through specific biological issues, so can my brain.

But the brain, unlike my lungs or kidneys, is also the central processing unit for my faith. My liver doesn’t consider tempation to sin. My pancreas doesn’t consider the truth of God’s Word. My lungs are not proud. My kidneys are not humble. But my brain is engaged in all of those feelings and thoughts.

The mix of biological function of an organ and spiritual function of the seat of faith is confusing to say the least. But it seems a lot more confusing for those who have never experienced biological malfunctions in the brain than those who do. My own experience as a type-1 diabetic has helped me. When my blood sugar gets low, I first get depressed. If it gets really low quickly, I lose touch with reality while still walking around. Before getting my insulin pump, I had several scary episodes which included me saying weird things, pushing family away trying to help me, and being rude and angry with a good friend. I hated afterwards realizing how I had spoken to my friend. I owed her a sincere apology. But more than I needed to apologize, I needed to EAT. There was going to be no help for my anger and no chance to repair my relationship with her until my blood sugar was no longer low. 

The thing about the interplay of biological issues and sin issues is that when the biological issues are addressed, much of the sin issues are immediately diffused. It’s like the child having a screaming temper tantrum because they are exhausted after a long day of activities. Get the kid a nap, and then addressing the tantrum becomes a lot more effective. When my blood sugar stabilized after the angry conversation with my friend, no one needed to lecture me on how I had treated her. And my temptation to anger with her was immediately removed. Dealing with the biological greatly aided the spiritual.

Going back to the young woman vomitting to lose weight – self harm is a spiritual issue … deeply affected by a biological issue. God’s gift of common grace to the world as a whole and His children in particular is growing knowledge of our brain as an organ. Just as new therapies in cancer treatment are gifts of God’s grace to us, new therapies in the treatment of mental illness can be too. Anorexia is a mental health issue. Note also that just as some cancer “treatments” are snake oil (we’ve had a recent case of this in Seattle), some mental health “therapies” are too. Not every idea is a good one. Not every treatment is a helpful one. But some are, and the reformed doctrine of common grace equips us to be open and accepting of mental health treatments that are research based and approved by licensed professionals.

One thing I have noted in my own journey with biological issues that can affect my brain is that there IS a big sin issue that tempts me again and again. The interesting thing is that it is the same temptation that all of us struggle with whether we have mental health issues or not. It is pride.

I am smart. I am educated.  I am independent. And I do not want my mom encouraging me to eat healthy. I don’t want my doctor to give me a new treatment plan. I don’t want to face my diabetes at all some days, because it makes me feel frail and inadequate. That weakness scares me. It interrupts my independence and self reliance. But, sometimes, my body falls apart and my mind can’t engage to fix it. As much as I hate that when it happens, I note that God gives grace to the humble. He gives His common grace to the humble as He does His particular saving grace. Whether it’s my mom or my doctor, my friend who read something online or my sister who hands me a glass of orange juice because I’m talking weirdly, my pride rouses up in resentment of the need while I desperately need to accept my weakness and humbly receive their help.

For anyone struggling with mental illness, your biggest temptation is likely self reliance when your greatest need is to humbly ask for help and receive it when it is given. It grieves me to think of Christian institutions heaping shame on those who are doing the right thing by seeking help, pointing them away from the gifts of God’s common grace to help them in that moment. It grieves me to think of unlicensed Christian counselors trying to “root out sin” among those seeking help instead of affirming the wise decision of the one struggling to seek help at all. The very fact they are seeking help, listening to doctors and family and pastors, IS the indicator they are rooting out the greatest sin issue that exacerbates mental health issues – being too scared to believe you have a problem and too proud to receive help from those God has given to speak into your life.  May our churches and ministries get this right for the good of those deeply struggling.

For further reading: http://www.ccef.org/resources

19 Responses to Conservative Christians and Mental Illness

  1. Anonymous December 13, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    Wendy,

    You reference the above comments (which I saw) and recommend CCEF (which I do as well, much more than the above teacher). Are you aware that CCEF appears to agree with the above teacher that eating disorders are behavioral issues that “biblical counseling can address” and that require “being open to the possibility that deep-down your problem is spiritual”? (These are quotes from a search of their website for “eating disorders.”)

    Much was made by some of the porn connection, but I thought it was pretty easy to see, namely, that both are things people do, in contrast to things like cancer, diabetes, etc. There may be a variety of underlying causes of various sorts. I think porn can be an addiction, just like eating disorders can become so habitual as to defy easy solutions. I know someone who struggled with this who said that even going in the bathroom was a struggle because the very sight of the commode brought the gag reflex that led to purging.

    I happen to think that things like eating disorders or porn can be addressed more effectively by sending someone to a clinic of sorts, a place where their behavior is monitored and their heart is addressed. Perhaps some sort of medication is helpful in some cases, though I don't know enough to know.

    I do think the material/immaterial connection of our humanity is incredibly complex and defies easy explanation. I hesitate to even comment much on it here for the fear that my comments will be read as saying more than I am actually intending to say.

    I also wonder if your equation to diabetes is any better than the one to porn. Until I give more consideration to the analogy, it seems like it is comparing things that really aren't similar. Diabetes is not something you do, nor is cancer, etc. They can be at times related to what we do (as in eat or not eat), and what we do can affect those things in different ways.

    But things like eating disorders and porn use seem to be totally different kinds of issues. Of course, I am willing to entertain the argument that they are more similar to diabetes, but I don't see it yet.

    Thanks,
    lr

  2. Wendy December 14, 2014 at 12:13 am #

    Good questions, lr. I don't know all of the answers. That's for sure. I do see a fundamental difference in eating disorders and porn. Lusting after a woman on screen is a clearly labeled sin in Scripture. Vomiting is not. Many of us vomit with absolutely no sin involved at all. Many with eating disorders initially vomited without sin. While sinful thought processes may contribute to why they eventually vomit, the act of throwing up is not sinful the way the act of masturbating to a naked woman on screen is. This difference puts these two things in entirely different categories in my mind at least.

  3. Alistair Robertson December 14, 2014 at 3:35 am #

    With all due respect and no formal qualifications, I'd like to push back on your last comment, Wendy.

    Neither vomiting or looking at a naked woman with desire is necessarily a sin (porn use does not necessarily include masturbation). It's the circumstances that surround each that determine whether these God-given things are sinful. I am married and can look at my wife without any sin involved. Certainly, many more people are prone to sinning in the latter way than the former, but I think it is extremely important not to deny good God-given gifts even while calling the abuse of such gifts as sin.

    If we go deep enough, we always see that sin is the twisting and misuse of a God-given gift.

  4. Wendy December 14, 2014 at 4:33 am #

    Alistair, reread my comment. I was talking specifically about lusting after a woman (not your wife) in the context of porn. There is never a time that is not sin. I agree that it is a twisting of a good, God-given gift. But porn is always a perversion of that good gift.

  5. Alistair Robertson December 14, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    I understood. And wouldn't it be correct to say that purging is a perversion of the body's gift of self-regulation (or even regurgitation)?

    I'm not sure what you think I've misunderstood. Porn is sin because it is using a good gift in a context that makes it sin. Purging is sin because it is using a good gift in a context that makes it sin. It seems (at least to me) that you are looking at the action of purging (vomiting) stripped of context and saying it's not necessarily sin, but looking at the action of looking at porn (arousal) and not stripping it of it's context and therefore concluding it can never not be sin.

    I think this an important point, but I don't think it worth arguing over ad infinitum, so I'll leave it there.

  6. Alistair Robertson December 14, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    Oh, I should also state, because I'm guessing it will be lost in my addressing that one comment, that I totally agree with the point of your post, i.e. that God has given us common grace helps that we are foolish to ignore and that we need to deny pride the power to keep us from that provision.

  7. Wendy December 14, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    Ok. Thanks.

  8. Anonymous December 15, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    This post brought me to tears. Thank you so much for being courageous enough to write this.

    I think it is also important for those who have never struggled with severe physical health issues, mental health issues or grief to also consider their pride.

    Five years ago I would have read a post like this and thought that Wendy was completely off her rocker theologically. But it was because I was believing lies I had been spoon fed by the church. Things that didn't come from God but from men. And my pride was puffed up thinking I was immune to such things. Four years ago I found out I am not immune.

  9. Gloria December 16, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    Thanks so much for this post, Wendy. I’ve suffered from Chronic Clinical Depression & experienced severe physical side-effects from it for many years. It took me failing the final year of my Law degree (which I eventually graduated magna cum laude after wisely taking a year off to seek professional help) to realise that “prayer, fasting & waiting on the Lord” was NOT going to solve the problem.
    It's a pity that the first commenter on this thread was anonymous, as I must affirm that anorexia, bullimia, clinical depression or any other mental illnesses are “things we do.” Thinking like that has caused more damage to the body of Christ than many can dare to imagine, & it’s unfounded & clinically inaccurate. In 2013, the World Health Organisation calculated that 375 million people globally are diagnosed with a mental illness annually. This accounts for 2% of the world's disease burden & mental health is the third leading cause of death in the Western Hemisphere after heart disease & cancer. Every year, at least 1 million people successfully commit suicide.
    In my family, mental illness is hereditary. Brain scans have shown that the serotonin production is below average (women are 4 times more likely to develop mental illness than men), as well as that it is reabsorbed much faster than it can be effective in regulating brain activity specifically as it relates to every day functions such as planning, executing & concentrating on tasks. At the height of my depression, brushing my teeth & waking up to shower felt like I was being held at gunpoint and forced to crawl through a forest of broken glass on my knees. Sometimes, the energy required to “do” those two things was so much that I would not “do” them. For anyone to judge that as a sinful choice to exercise poor hygiene, is actually laughable, given the overwhelming medical evidence explaining the physiological & biological factors that affect mental illness. Anorexics are not vain people who just choose to limit their calorie intake & vomit because they are bored & seeking attention. The mental & physical torture they endure is inexplicable. Many of them are hugely susceptible to all sorts of disease: osteoperosis, tooth decay, over-production of bile, skin ailments, nutritional deficiences , lacking energy & the ability to think & socialise normally, let alone wonder about prayer & humbling themselves. That is not voluntary! They live in hell, their body turning on itself, under the instruction of their own minds.
    I once found myself walking on the train tracks, & even though I was hospitalised & placed under surveillance for allegedly being suicidal, I DID NOT want to die! Unlike a porn addict who might have started with a perverse sexual curiosity, not once did I decide to be depressed. My hormones & brain are not out of balance because I consciously made a choice to be depressed. The part of my brain responsible for communicating danger, alerting me to fear & initiating my muscles & motor functions to desist from that dangerous activity were not functioning properly. Just because I DID something stupid, i.e. walking on train tracks it doesn’t mean that I was intentionally being wreckless with my life or needed to go back to God and confess my sinful nature for not having sought help earlier. What I needed was a new prescription for my SSRI medication, because as my biology and physiology had changed with age, so had the effectiveness of the medication that helps me to function in an incredibly stressful & fast-paced work environment, today.

  10. Gloria December 16, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    I challenge ANYONE who claims that anorexia or other eating disorders can be explained away differently from cancer or diabetes to consider how it might feel to have to bury a child to an unintentional suicide or similar tragedy. No one who is not mentally ill is qualified to speculate on the motives of those who ARE in fact mentally ill, & certainly claiming that the voluntary nature of the mental illness itself is a separate sin issue from the one of pride is sorely mistaken.
    (Apologies for 2 comments. I'm passionate about this topic.)

  11. Anonymous December 17, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    Thanks Wendy. I don't want to get too deep here, but let me press back a bit on your response. You compare “vomiting” with “masturbation to porn.” Those are not equal comparisons. You are correct that vomiting is not a sin of itself, but (not to be indelicate) there's a good argument that masturbation is not either in and of itself. It is the context of thinking that qualifies it, and as you say later, those eating disorder may have sinful thoughts behind them. That is the situation that I think is being addressed. Actions that are driven by sinful thinking is what is in view in the comments you mention, and that is the comparison. Diabetes, on the other hand, is not the same kind of issue.

  12. Wendy December 18, 2014 at 2:07 am #

    Masturbation and masturbation to porn are two different things. Masturbation is not sin in and of itself (though some would argue with me there). But masturbation to porn (images not of your own spouse for the purpose of stimulating a sexual reaction) is always sin.

  13. Colleen76 December 18, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    This comment is amazing. As someone who also has low serotonin I agree.

  14. Anonymous December 18, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

    Here is my take, as someone who struggles with depression and has been on antidepressants for 10 years. The issue of medication isn't black and white. Research shows that for many, the most effective form of treatment is a combination of medication and talk therapy. I think fundamentalists want to build a straw man by saying, Secular psychiatrists say it's all about brain chemicals and every single thing can be fixed with medication. When, in reality, most secular mental health professionals I've interacted with have *never* taken that approach.

    I guess I speak from my own experience, as do we all. 🙂 I know that I could not function without being on antidepressants. I do not like that! I hate it! But it's true. Simultaneously, I know that medication alone won't make me a functioning adult. I have had to do some VERY hard work in cognitive behavioral therapy, and I continue to do this–a lot of it involves re-training my thinking, which is something I think a fundamentalist would be all for.

  15. Anonymous January 2, 2015 at 4:15 am #

    Thank you for this excellent piece! I have seen “witch hunts” for sin among God's dear hurting & sick ones. Seems more like the practice of wolves than shepherds.

  16. Felicia Strange January 4, 2015 at 7:16 pm #

    Wendy, I just want to say AMEN! I am so grateful for this post, more than many words could express. You have made your point so clear that some of us who have struggled for a very long time with this issue can FINALLY understand so much truth in this area. Thank you.

  17. Wendy January 5, 2015 at 2:20 am #

    Thanks, SundA! I'm so glad you found it helpful.

  18. D January 27, 2015 at 3:47 am #

    Wendy,

    Thank you for this. I'm a Christian who is being treated for depression. I loved this whole post, but your last paragraph really spoke to me. I occasionally think I can handle it on my own, ignore my treatment plan, and get annoyed when my incredibly supportive family and friends check in with me to see if I'm taking care of myself. That is all definitely pride. Lately, I've gotten to know some people who also have diagnosed mental illnesses and have benefited in the past from medication and/or therapy but don't have access to that treatment now for financial or other reasons. When I'm tempted to skip taking my medicine (or neglect my mental health in other ways), my mind turns to them and I take my pills and say a prayer for them and me both.

    As much as I appreciated that last paragraph, I'd like to add a nuance to it. For some people, avoidance of treatment is not pride but is actually a manifestation of their illness. They are too depressed or anxious to ask for help, or they are too mired in their eating disorder or body dysmorphia to acknowledge the harmful control it has over them.

    Your post provides (at least part of) the answer to this issue, too– if we change the conversation in the Church about mental illness from condemnation to grace, we allow people to be honest about their struggles. Then we can come alongside them, and get to know whether what's keeping them from treatment is the illness itself or pride. We must know each other in order to help each other (whether we need help addressing a health issue or a sin issue or both), and in order to know each other we have to get rid of this stigma! Thank you for helping to do just that!

  19. Wendy January 27, 2015 at 6:27 am #

    I agree with your nuance. Thanks for adding.