If you, or a member of your family, have a mental illness, don't count on getting understanding or support from your church pastor. Of course, many will try to help if you approach them for guidance; however, a whopping 32 to 40 percent of Christian ministers will dismiss your problem and say that you do not really have a mental illness. Your problem is solely "spiritual in nature," say approximately one-third of church clergy. This is hard to accept, horrible.
This is the very disturbing result of several recent studies headed by Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas. One study appears in the journal "Mental Health, Religion and Culture;" and the other appears in the "Journal of Religion, Disability & Health." (See article in Baylor University's Lariat here.)
It gets even more disturbing. In one study of 293 Christians -- who had a diagnosed, serious mental illness -- 30 percent reported a negative interaction with the church. What does that mean? Their church either abandoned them, equated mental illness with the work of demons or suggested that the mental disorder was because of personal sin. How do YOU spell love and understanding? Don't forget, all of the participants in both studies were previously diagnosed (by a licensed mental health provider) as having a serious mental illness -- such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, prior to approaching their local church for assistance, reports MSNBC .
The second study found that of 85 mentally ill Christians, 41.2 percent of them said that the church had dismissed the diagnosis.
CLERGY AS MENTAL HEALTH GATEKEEPERS
This too is troubling -- Clergy, not psychologists or other mental health experts, are the most common source of help sought in times of psychological distress, according to other studies. Also, psychologists themselves tend to view the clergy as mental health gatekeepers.
"The results are troubling because it suggests individuals in the local church are either denying or dismissing a somewhat high percentage of mental health diagnosis," said Stanford. "Those whose mental illness is dismissed by clergy are not only being told they don't have a mental illness, they are also being told they need to stop taking their medication. That can be a very dangerous thing."
Yes, it's dangerous alright. The study, "Keeping Care Complete," interviewed 700 psychiatrists and 1100 other mental health care-givers in Australia and eight other countries. The study examined how stigma, treatment non-adherence and relapse affected the lives of people living with bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder and schizophrenia. The findings showed that up to 60 per cent of mentally ill Australians relapse when they stop taking medication. Among them, almost half try self-harm and 95 per cent end up in the hospital.
If all this isn't disturbing enough, Baylor University researchers also found that women were more likely than men to have their mental disorders dismissed by the church.
Interestingly, an atheist seems more supportive of Christian women than the Christian clergy:
"Women are more likely than men to be told that their mental disorders are not biological but spiritual," discusses Austin Cline, Atheism About.Com blogger. "Why would that be, if not because women's complaints, concerns and problems simply aren't being taken as seriously by authority figures in their lives? Well, one additional issue may be an implicit assumption that women are spiritually damaged -- perhaps a natural conclusion from the Christian dogmas that women are to blame for sin in the world."
Researchers found that study participants who were told by their pastors they did not have a mental illness were regular church-goers, and more likely to attend church twice or more a week. Not surprising, however, is that these same participants also described their church as conservative or charismatic.
Included among the reasons Christians give for denying the legitimacy of mental disorders, said researcher Matthew Stanford, in a speech titled "Demon or Disorder:"
- Psychiatry and psychology promote sinful behavior.
- Mental Illness is not in the Bible.
- Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression are sins (Phil 4:4-6; 2 Peter 1:3).
That's funny, this kind of reasoning kind of sounds like Tom Cruise and Scientology. Do fundamentalist Christians, conservative and charismatic, believe the same as scientologists?
HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN THIS AFFECT ?
A few statistics, also from Stanford's speech, show just how many people can be affected by dismissive attitudes of church ministers:
- An estimated 26 per cent of Americans (57.7 million people) ages eighteen and older (one in four adults) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
- Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada for ages 15 - 44.
Research has shown that religious social support can play a key role in recovery from psychiatric illness. That is if the church pastor doesn't say your diagnosed illness is make-believe, or you're really, really sinful, or demons have got you, and then especially, you're just woman.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons church pews are becoming empty.