As a student of Psychology at the University of Surrey (I am now an Alumnus) and a Christian, the debates surrounding mental illness are unending between the two dichotomous yet unified concepts. I think what fuels the debate even more for me, is coming from a Nigerian background. I love my country, but we have a lot of growing to do when it comes to understanding the multi-causal influences on mental illnesses.
I’ve studied Psychology for many years (since 2007), I have a Bachelor of Science degree in the discipline, I teach Psychology, and I am currently completing my post-grad at UCL. With that being said, I’m not an absolute expert, but let’s just say I know quite a lot and I’m forever learning more. I will add references for where I’ve sourced the information used in this blog for your perusal! I will try my very best to use lay-mans terms and explain any psychological terminology for you. My psychology buddies, feel free to add your own 5 naira, as we know in psychology, most things are subjective and ever evolving so opinions will vary. Please do not take what I write as absolute fact!
The DSM IV-TR (APA, 2000) is the tool used by Psychiatrists and Psychologist as a criteria for diagnosis. It contains an array of mental illnesses and their respective diagnostic criterions. It defines mental illness as follows:
- A behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual
- That reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction
- The consequences of which are clinically significant distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning)
- Must not be merely an expectable response to common stressors and losses (for example, the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals)
- That is not primarily a result of social deviance or conflicts with society
I’ll explain in lay-mans terms for you to understand, the DSM is essentially saying that one can be diagnosed as mentally ill if:
- The syndrome is recurring, not just a one off.
- Aetiology (cause) or consequence can be measured biologically (usually through brain scans that reveal chemical imbalances in the neurotransmitters said to be the main influencers of psychological disorders eg. Dopamine and serotonin).
- The disorder affects ones daily functioning.
- However, you cannot diagnose someone who is practising a religious ritual as mentally ill. So I know some folk have been saying things like meditation for certain religions and speaking in tongues or praying to a God that you cannot see for Christianity are signs of mental illness..No sir, we’ve excluded that. AMEN
I’m skipping so many psychological bits but do ask me questions or use google! Let me briefly add that within psychology there are many approaches and explanations for a phenomena. For example, mental illness can be explained in different ways depending on which approach you use:
- Biological approach: Mental illness is caused by genetics; chemical imbalance in brain neurotransmitters. Drugs/Priming
- Cognitive approach: Mental illness is a result of recurring dysfunctional thinking, which manifests in the form of maladaptive behaviours that conform to the signs of mental illness. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Albert Ellis
- Social approach: Mental illness is caused by social factors including lifestyle behaviours, such as taking drugs, peer influence etc. Life Changing Events. Changing social situation
- Psychodynamic approach: Mental illness also is based on Melancholia (Freud), severe depression due to repression of unwanted thoughts in the unconscious surfacing to the conscious level. Psychoanalysis.
The psychodynamic approach was one of the first approaches used to explain mental illness, paving the way for other approaches to be develop. Each approach has their respective treatment style and their success rates. The biological approach is the most successful in dealing with the symptoms of mental disorders, but has a high relapse (mental illness surfacing again) rate. CBT is a great approach in dealing with the cause of mental disorders, and is most effective when combined with drug treatment.
So the psychology bit is nearly over, let us move onto the SPIRITUAL side of things.
Let me clarify, that by spiritual, I mean in terms of Christianity.
In my time so far as a Christian, having seen different denominations and cultural influencers on Christianity, the general consensus that I’ve deduced is that Christians understand mental illness in one of these ways:
1. Mental illness is caused by demons. So the treatment is to cast out the demons that are causing it.
2. The term ‘mental illness’ is jargon. There’s no such thing as a ‘mental illness’, its not mentioned in the Bible so…no adonbelievit lool. All so-called mental illnesses are just sinful behaviours. So the treatment is for person to repent and get right with God.
3. Mental illness is a physiological disorder. If someone has panic attacks, OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or chronic depression or ADHD, they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, not different from the causes of hypertension or arthritis and many other illnesses.
Number one is common for most of us Nollywood fans looool, or those that have witness exorcisms of whatever kind. ‘Some’ cultural churches tend to promote the notion of number one.
Number two is usually the opinion of those that have no idea about psychology and mental disorders, basically ignorant to things that do not concern them as most of us are to be honest. Some have said that mental illness did not exist in biblical times and is just a modern invention to legitimize sinful behaviour. Some argue that you cannot find the terms mental illness/disorder in the Scriptures. They are correct, of course you won’t find those terms in the Bible but you do see the related terms madness and insanity used often. These terms are used to describe a set of thoughts and behaviours recognized to be extreme, incapacitating and abnormal in nature. The existence of madness and insanity in biblical times is very clear, Google helped me find a few examples:
A punishment for violating the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:28)
Prophets servant is thought mad (2 Kings 9:11)
Madness compared to foolish behavior (Proverbs 26:18)
Madness is the opposite of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:17; 7:7)
Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment (Daniel 4:32-34
Jesus is thought to be insane by His family (Mark 3:21; John 10:20)
Jesus heals a lunatic (Matthew 17:15)
Festus suggests that Paul is mad (Acts 26:24-25)
Believers could be thought to be mad (1 Corinthians 14:23)
Paul’s ideas so extreme as to be thought insane (2 Corinthians 11:23)
So individuals displaying abnormal thoughts and behaviours, the mentally ill, were clearly known throughout biblical history. Today those same abnormal thoughts and behaviours have been categorized into a set of specific mental disorders for which many effective interventions and treatments have been developed. The fact is that Christians develop mental illness at the same rates seen in the general population, and suggestions such as you need to pray more or this is just the result of weak faith are ineffective in dealing with these serious medical conditions. Yes, sickness exist in the world because of Sin, I can’t dispute that, but let’s not become irrational in terms of our approach to dealing with it.
Number three is often the case, logical and well explained above in the psychology part of this blog.
YET IT IS NOT AS SIMPLE TO ALL AGREE ON ONE POINT!
The problem to me, seems to be rooted in the fact that we don’t understand how the body, soul, and spirit are related.
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole SPIRIT, SOUL, and BODY be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Thessalonians 5:23).
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing SOUL and SPIRIT, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
The popular model of the human anatomy among Bible-believing Christians is that the body and the soul (and spirit, if you believe the spirit is distinct from the soul) are completely separate entities.
I disagree with this. Instead, I understand the body, soul and spirit to be interconnected and I think the New Testament emphasises this. According to this model, the body (brain, entire body), the soul (consciousness, mind, will, and emotions), and the spirit (the part of a Christian that has been made alive to God) are all interconnected. Which means that each part has an effect on the other and I see this everyday. For me, I know that when my spirit is moved especially in praise and worship, my body feels rejuvenated, my mind becomes clear, my emotions are positive.
So how do we link this to understanding mental illnesses and treatments!
Well guys, I’m sure you’ve been really good readers and remember the psychological explanations for mental illness. I believe this explanation is sound, however it is not absolute when it comes to treatment. Psychologists have slyly realised this, when I read some of the recent ‘Psychology of Religion Journal’ articles, some psychologist actually encourage religious practice for a stable mind.
From their earliest years, children demonstrate a strong spiritual capacity; marital partners who pray for each other are less likely to engage in infidelity; people who attend religious services once a week or more live on the average seven years longer(Pargament, 2013).
God sometimes heals physical and mental disorders supernaturally. This includes mental illnesses, such as panic attacks, depression. But…not always. Sometimes the Lord treats it through medication and treatments. The medication that has been made through His creation, the medication that has been made through the raw materials He created. The medication that He has given mere man the wisdom to create; The treatment that He gave man the wisdom to develop. Sometimes demons are involved in mental illness, but NOT always.
I feel that as believers, we could better understand that mental illness is not just a matter of only spirit, or only soul, or only body. It often has a physiological root which affects both soul and body, vice versa. If we could understand this better, we’d be less prone to making harsh judgments against our brothers and sisters who may suffer from a mental illness. It is not always about the demons, stop giving them undue credit.
If you take blood pressure medicine, you have no right to judge a believer who is taking medicine for depression. If you take medication for headaches or arthritis, you have no right to judge someone who takes medicine for bipolar disorder.
GOD’S MATERIALS ARE BEING USED FOR HEALING, SO DO NOT BE STUBBORN AND CONDEMN THE USE OF MEDICATION OR TREATMENT IN THE NAME OF HAVING FAITH. THIS IS ONE OF THE STUPIDEST THING I HAVE HEARD SOME PASTORS ADVISE THEIR MEMBERS TO DO.
I certainly don’t have all the answers and even the “experts” disagree with each other. None of us have arrived to the fullness of God’s revelation on this topic… So let us remain ‘students’ giving grace for all to learn. Let’s be reasonable and respond being seasoned with grace to sensitive issues like this.
What can Psychologists do?
For many years, psychologists have steered clear of religion and spirituality in clinical practice. That was perhaps because there was some history of religious antipathy among early psychology leaders such as Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, or perhaps because psychologists generally lack training in this area. (We need more Christian Psychologists tbh)! Yet there are several good scientifically based reasons to attend to religion and spirituality in practice. For many people, religion and spirituality are key resources that can facilitate their growth, their health and general well-being. Emerging research is showing that spiritually integrated approaches to treatment are as effective as other treatments. There is, in short, good scientifically based reason to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality in clinical practice. (Read: How prayer changes your brain structure)
Psychologists are now developing and evaluating a variety of spiritually integrated approaches to treatment, including: forgiveness programs to help divorced people come to terms with bitterness and anger; programs to help survivors of sexual abuse deal with their spiritual struggles; treatments for women with eating disorders that draw on their spiritual resources; and programs that help drug abusers re-connect to their higher selves. These programs are still in their early stages of development, but the preliminary results are promising (Pargament, 2013).
CONCLUSION: PSYCHOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY ARE NOT ENEMIES 🙂
Thank you to Eunice, @EuniceKainene for giving me a timely reminder to write this post.
Extra Resources for eager readers 🙂
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders(4th, text rev. ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Bible (All versions). http://www.biblegateway.com/
Clay, S. (1990). Spirituality and Madness. Newsletter of the Center for Conscious Evolution.
Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD (2013). http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/03/religion-spirituality.aspx
Maton, K.I. & Wells, E.A. (1990). Religion as a community resource for well-being: Prevention, healing, and empowerment pathways. Journal of Social Issues, 51, 177-193.