Mental Illness: Demons or Dopamine? Psychological or Spiritual?

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 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 so opinions will vary. Please do not take what I write as absolute fact!  

PSYCHOLOGY 101

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:

  1. A behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual
  2. That reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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:

Old Testament
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
New Testament
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.

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. I have to give a shout out to my church, Eternity Church in Guildford, for teaching us this in our Bible Academy.

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).

three-overlapping-circlesThe 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), the soul (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, DON’T 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 the “experts” disagree with each other loool. 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. For others, religion and spirituality may be sources of problems that need to be addressed in the service of their health and 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.

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.

Eternity Church: Bible Academy. http://www.eternitychurch.co.uk/

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 Issues51, 177-193.

18 thoughts on “Mental Illness: Demons or Dopamine? Psychological or Spiritual?

  1. Mary says:

    I totally agree with u I’ve often found that those with mental illnesses like schizophrenia are not just only an illness but something spiritual. I was watching a documentary about schizophrenic patients and a particular woman shocked me she said that she felt there was evil inside her and she wanted to rip it out and she clearly drew a picture of the what the evil inside her was which was very similar of how someone depict a demon.

    That’s when I realised that mental illnesses are not just physical.. As a psychology graduate and having a great interest in psychopathology, my lecturer taught me is the DSM really based on the biological model? Can someone be really treated by medications and be ‘cured’.. I would say that my lecturer rather challenged than taught us.. So I would disagree that God heals through medication when it comes to mental illness like depression. Medication just eliminates the symptoms but not the actual problem. I did my dissertation on depression and on the whole I found that some mental illnesses can be spirit or demon possessed.. And depression I found for many was a spirit it was deeper than what it was actually was; the unsolved issues and problems or life itself is what caused people depression medication does not solve this.. Journals I’ve read would say medication is very effective but once they’ve off the medication there’s a high probability that they relapse .. The mental health sector does not want to spend money on psychotherapy because its long term causing it to be expensive whereas medication is short term and cheap..

    So overall I definitely agree with you as a Christian that the mind body and spirit are one but I believe in taking all three into consideration and making therapies that involve mind body and spirit and then mental illness can be truly dealt with..

    But like I said before and what i want you to think about is the DSM based on biological model? Personality disorders for example is a section are found in the DSM.. Is Society is now defining what type of personality is normal and abnormal? Years ago being gay was found to be a mental illness but was removed simply by a gay march outside an apa meeting.. Who influences the DSM?

    I’m so glad u did this and I would definitely share with those that have also questioned whether mental illness is spiritual or not

    • Kanayo Dike-Oduah says:

      Hey Mary, thank you for your comment.
      What you said in the second to last paragraph is certainly food for thought! I understand the DSM to have it flaws and to be subjectively sourced and generated. Most things in psychology ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Perhaps I’ll be able to cover this is future blogs, as this one was borderline becoming a short novel lool.

  2. Michael Olasope says:

    I love what you have written kanayo and I agree completely with both sides. I believe a person can be affected by a mental illness by both sides of the coin just as illness can be cause by both physical and spiritual factors. I just want to add to what you have said when it comes to the spiritual aspect. I do believe demons can affect people mentally as can be seen in the bible,but I also believe that when a demon departs from a person there can still be problems with the person. When a demon has left a person,their imprint is still there. While there they change how a person thinks,their mindset,etc. This links up with what you said about how they are all connected.

    So a demon may have left a person but the stronghold could still remain. Biblically what is a stronghold. It is a faulty thinking pattern based on lies and deception. Now 2 corinthians 10:4 talks about how we pull down strongholds. Further proof that the mindset left by a demon is a stronghold is seen in verse 5 which links up to verse 4 and talks about us casting down arguments and every thought against God. 2 corinthians 10:1-5 should be studied in depth as I can’t fully explain it here. But as I was saying before,verse 4 talks about us using weapons. As we know biblical,our weapon is the word of God(sharper than a sword). So we have to use the word of God to destroy these strongholds. That’s why the bible says we need to renew our mind and we have to do that with the word of God. So you might not be able to cast out a demon from a homosexual person but the stronghold can be pulled down by the person renewing their mind with the word of God. God bless you kanayo. More grace to you.

  3. eternallyrich says:

    Oh wow.. Just last night, I was pondering on this mental illness issue..

    Then this morning, I saw this.. Great post..! Lengthy but I read all the way through..

    I’ll be discussing a related idea with u soonish 😛

  4. Chibueze says:

    Wow! Such expertly written, really good piece of work here.
    A few comments though;

    firstly i’m no psychologists so there are lots of things here which i had no pre-informed ideas about, but when it comes to mental illnesses as is the case of this “mental illness” article, surely schizophrenia definitely needs to get a “shout out”. Lol!

    Secondly as a Christian myself, when talking scriptures the first example that comes to my mind is from Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus heals a man with a demon (cue: madman of Gadarene).

    As is the practice in many Afro-Caribbean and Asian cultures, the sufferer of mental illness( which in many cases are various stages of schizophrenia ) is forced to exile his/her home and people (just as the madman of Gadarene) and is at the mercy of whatever/ whoever comes to her/his aid. It’s rather shocking, as in many cases they end up wandering the streets for years before their eventual death.

    Some others are taken to spiritual homes where all forms of ritualistic practices are carried out on/for them with varying degrees of successes.

    Only just a few are taken to psychiatric wards or psychiatric hospitals to get professional real medical treatments and care.

    These are my thoughts, probably not put in properly but I must also add that Kanayo Is doing a fantastic job with her life. God bless you sister and also Michael OLasope made a great contribution to it.

    God help us all.

    • Kanayo Dike-Oduah says:

      Thank you for your comment Chibueze. I definitely agree with you on the fact that the some of the indigenous treatments for mental illness have been successful, whilst a large amount remain unaccounted for or have dire endings. I guess its really all about being educated on the topic, open to sound treatment and avoiding all forms of ignorance. The latter is something that our generation need to push for back home!

  5. eniola folarin says:

    Yes! I was so happy to read this! A friend led me to your blog and I must say its a really good one 🙂 Thank you for this write up. I have struggled with depression for years and my personal experiences have led me to pursue psychology as a second degree (I studied law in Lancaster University) . I will be starting this September 🙂 Would you mind if I asked you for some help along the way?

  6. derriannmcornwall says:

    I am a first year student studying psychology. I have always found psychology interesting since high school. I came across some articles about how Christianity and Psychology don’t mix and that it’s a waste of time for Christians to be studying psychology I became discouraged. I plan on teaching, counselling, and writing books as the Lord continues to inspire me. I came across your article my mood literally made a 180 degree turn. Praise God for this post! I am now encouraged to study psychology hand and hand with the BIBLE. I pray that God continues to bless me with a spirit of discernment as I study. Blessings ! (PS:any advice?)

    • Kanayo Dike-Oduah says:

      Aww thats awesome – praise God 🙂

      My number one tip has to be find a ‘B A L A N C E’! Make sure you are part of a Christian fellowship while at university, so that you soak in all the spiritual nutrients that you need to excel in your faith and in your studies. Partner with God on your degree – pledge that you will use it for His glory. Stay on top of your reading, ask for extra help/guidance from your lecturers if you get stuck and enjoy learning! Never forget why you chose Psychology, what your passion and purpose is, all of these will keep you going when you feel like giving up! You are blessed xxx

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