The Next Challenge for Religion: Accept Mental Illness and Embrace the Sick; Don’t Shun Them

Soldier w folded flagOn Veteran’s Day last month, Televangelist Kenneth Copeland insisted that American veterans returning from combat need not suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), mostly because they were killing in the name of God and would therefore remain somehow Biblically “blameless” and thus emotionally unharmed.

The comments were moronic, and in fairness intensely criticized by heavily conservative religious groups including the Southern Baptist Convention. But Copeland’s words shouldn’t just be written off as an isolated and ignorant rant. There is reason to believe that many religious individuals- particularly ones with a “just world” view and a belief in an omnipotent if often inscrutable God- tend to want to explain away mental illness in terms of a spiritual failure or a demonic force.

Historically, this should come as no surprise. The physically disabled, disfigured and diseased were for millennia made to feel somehow responsible for their predicaments and admonished to either beg forgiveness or somehow pray harder. There has long been an irksome internal conflict presented to those who believe in an all powerful God Who would yet allow disease and disability to stalk His creatures. Certainly not all religious thinkers over the centuries wrote off these maladies as the fault of the stricken, but even as religious thought has evolved, the idea that people are somehow responsible for their fate has remained a tempting conclusion for those who have a difficult time with how God appears to work in the world.  It is also, sadly, a common, defensive strategy imposed by the lucky to distance themselves from the unlucky. Ask the legions of sexual violence survivors who have borne blame in exactly that way.

Where somatic disease is concerned, though, to a large extent, medical science, common sense and better standards of human decency have led most religious away from blaming and isolating the physically ill.

But we need to ask ourselves very frankly if the same thing is true when it comes to mental diseases and disorders. Prayer may no be longer be the sole remedy suggested by a deeply religious person for an inflamed appendix or a broken bone. Yet how often is it still being suggested confidently as the only necessary answer to chemical depression, organic mental illness, and yes- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

2 thoughts on “The Next Challenge for Religion: Accept Mental Illness and Embrace the Sick; Don’t Shun Them

  1. Christopher M Anderson

    Great post Roger. It’s also important to note that we are understanding the impact of trauma and abuse on a somatic level as well, and that this research is giving us a picture of metal illness that is radically different from the old paradigms as well. We can see epigenetic changes to the genome itself as a result of trauma and abuse that can have lasting impacts not only on the victim, but potentially on their progeny as well. More importantly, we are also beginning to see that we can profoundly help those who have been hurt heal with compassionate trauma-informed care (such as TF-CBT). It’s also important to know that this doesn’t necessarily conflict with support from faith communities either.

    The more we understand the deep physical changes in the brain and in our genes that exposure to abuse, violence, and trauma can potentially have on a person, the more important it is that we change the paradigm of seeing people who are “mentally ill” as somehow deformed or permanently flawed. There may well be a small percentage of people who are intractably “evil” in their actions and motivations but they are far fewer than many people believe. Most of us are struggling with the burden of healing and need help and support far more than sermons on why we are broken, flawed, and ungodly.

  2. Roger Canaff Post author

    Thanks, Chris- great points, particularly about the physical effects of trauma and the possibility of epigenetic mutation as well. Great stuff- as always.

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