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Educating the Conservative Evangelical Church about Mental Illness

by Brian Briscoe, MD

January 20, 2016

Brian Briscoe, MD

Christians suffering from mental illness often hesitate to seek psychiatric care. The reasons for this are varied and numerous, but oftentimes the cause lies within our Christian communities which, at times, seem to stigmatize mental illness or suggest that psychiatric symptoms are the result of personal sin.   

In my experience, even Christian leaders—pastors, seminary administrators and professors, church elders, etc.—express these views, and their views then percolate down into the cultures they influence.

As many of us are acutely aware, Christian cultures that stigmatize and/or dismiss the existence of mental illness can do great harm to persons with psychiatric illness.   

As healthcare professionals and fellow believers in Christ, we are in a unique position to protect vulnerable persons with mental illness and help our local and national Christian groups develop a more mature understanding of mental health.

How can those of us who are imbedded within such cultures accomplish improve the situation?

It starts with building trusting relationships with pastors in our local communities. It is especially important to convey our belief in Christ and commitment to the faith, both in word and deed, BEFORE attempting to present our opinion on mental illness. Earn respect and trust FIRST, by demonstrating Christ-like behavior and serving in non-medical ways at church (teaching Sunday school, serving in the children’s ministries, non-medical missions, etc.). In some churches that are highly suspicious of psychiatry/psychology, it may take years to build trust, but once trust and meaningful relationships are established with church leaders, a psychiatrist can begin to engage in conversations that mature the church’s view and understanding of mental illness.

When conversing with pastors or other Christian leaders who are uninformed, misinformed or even dangerously misinformed, always seek to maintain a humble posture. And be patient. It may take a long time to dislodge pre-existing beliefs about the underlying causes of mental illness. But your patience and servanthood can pay big dividends for persons and families struggling with mental illness.

If you find yourself within a Christian culture in which pastoral leadership is more open to psychiatry, consider offering to provide educational talks on mental health/illness to leadership and/or the congregation at large.

Consider reaching out to your local seminary to see if there is a way you can plug in to help educate the students about mental illness.

If you are blessed with connections and networks that might lend you access, reach out to national leaders within the church. Ask how you can assist them or the agencies they serve with regard to matters concerning mental health.   

Educating non-psychiatric physicians who share Christian beliefs can also be a fruitful endeavor. Non-psychiatric MDs are often highly respected church members and consequently carry influence within their own congregations. Our physician colleagues’ opinions and voices can go a long way in maturing Christian perspectives on mental illness. Consider getting involved in your local CMDA chapter—as a council member or simply an active participant in CMDA activities—in such a way that will offer the opportunity to dialog with your non-psychiatric colleagues about mental health issues. Consider giving a lecture or participating in a panel discussion to practicing Christian physicians or Christian medical students in your local CMDA chapter. If you are an especially gifted and experienced speaker, consider reaching out to CMDA’s national office (www.cmda.org) and offer to give a talk to non-psychiatric physicians at the CMDA National Convention.

As physicians, we have a duty to protect the mentally ill. And, I would argue, we have a duty as Christians to ensure our Christian culture understands and cares appropriately for those who are afflicted. Regardless of what avenue you choose to educate the church about mental illness, the work you do is worth the effort.

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