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'Demon or disorder?' one Christian psychology prof asks

by Alison Flowers
Nov 11, 2008


“I’m mentally ill, but I liked your preaching anyway,” is what one parishioner told the Rev. Kenneth Simpson after mass at Lincoln Park’s St. Clement Catholic Church a few weeks ago. The reverend chuckled and said he was pleased the homily touched him.

But other people struggling with mental illness across the nation have reported a less favorable experience. A Baylor University study found that one-third of clergy across Christian denominations either denied help or dismissed the disorders as being spiritual in nature. Researchers surveyed 293 people who either had a diagnosed mental illness or had a mentally ill family member.

Among those whose illnesses were denied by clergy, 15 to 20 percent said this experience weakened their faith. Twelve percent said it ruined their faith.

“The social support system being torn away from them leaves them even more vulnerable to serious consequences,” said Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor and lead researcher of the 2007 study. He also published a subsequent study in 2008 that looked at seriously mentally ill Christians and the kinds of churches that denied the validity of their disorders.

Stanford said ideology is what drove the clergy's response.

“If you went to a more conservative church, or if you went to a church that was more charismatic or ‘spirit-filled,’ you were more likely to be dismissed than [by] those that considered themselves liberal,” he said.

The presiding ideology that leads some Christian ministers to downplay the science behind mental illness is the belief that mental illness is the result of sinful nature.

One such pastor is the Rev. Bill Branks of River North Baptist Church, who leads a transient church with a Sunday attendance of about 40 people. He said he encounters about two or three mentally ill congregants weekly.

“All of our social ills are also rooted in sin, pride,” he said, acknowledging that external factors can pressure people into extreme emotional states.

While Branks did concede that medication can help, he added: “It’s not going to resolve the issue. We as a church try to steer people directly to salvation and that there’s new life in Christ, that he is the great physician.”

For decades, research has shown that people seek psychological help from clergy more often than from a mental health professional. Psychologists call this the “gatekeeper” approach, hoping that clergy will exercise proper judgment in referring congregants to them.

Some ministers do just that.

“I am not a therapist,” said Simpson.

In his 30 years as priest, 15 of which were spent ministering to students at Northwestern University’s Sheil Center in Evanston, he has encountered people with a variety of mental health issues. He even worked at a mental hospital in Philadelphia and took basic counseling courses in seminary.

“It’s enough to know what you don’t know,” Simpson said of the classes. He noted that he is always on the look-out for quality, faith-sensitive mental health resources for his parishioners.

The belief that God is with them is a great comfort to the mentally ill, Simpson has found.

“Someone can be really disoriented psychologically, but that does not make them out of the reach of God,” Simpson said.

Other clergy see themselves as general practitioners to “maladies of the spirit,” as the Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church describes his work with the mentally ill. He refers his members out to qualified professionals if he thinks their problems exceed his expertise.

Nonetheless, Allen still believes that demonic forces may be the genesis of their condition.

“I think it is important to pray for people with that kind of condition and also help send them to the doctor,” Allen said.

For nearly 20 years, Uptown Baptist has used its basement to shelter homeless women, some of whom are mentally ill. These women work with case managers and are ministered to by other women in the church who teach them about the Bible.

The Bible isn’t the only medicine Allen thinks should be prescribed.

He relayed the consequences for a paranoid-schizophrenic woman in his church who had been told her problem was spiritual and to stop taking her medication. With the help of her husband and the police, the reverend convinced her to seek treatment from the hospital and get stabilized.

“But the story doesn’t end there,” Allen added, explaining there is still a complicated decision to be made as to whether to return home with her husband or to live in a managed-care facility.

Unlike Allen, there are some Christian groups that oppose psychology altogether. Books like Richard Ganz’s “Psychobabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative” and Ed Bulkley’s “Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology” have populated more mainstream church libraries and bookstores.

One Web site, “psychoheresy.com,” maintains a forum where one woman asked if she should get help for her mentally ill sister. Her post resulted in this statement from the site administrator:

“I have a major problem when Christians look to drugs to give them peace, joy and a sound mind. Here are some verses I like to show those that are caught up in the deception that psychology has something to offer a Christian.”

This type of response is what prompted Dr. Stanford, a self-described “man of faith,” to write his 2008 book, “Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective to Mental Illness” while conducting his study at Baylor. He sees the resistance to psychology among some Christian groups as part of the historic fallout of science and faith.

“The same pastor that’s telling someone ‘don’t take your medication for this mental illness,’ probably just finished taking his blood pressure medication and doesn’t see those in any way in conflict with one another,” Stanford said.

For the Rev. Bill Spencer of St. Peter’s in the Loop, there’s no conflict between science and faith on this issue.

“We [as Catholics] are not in competition with anyone,” he said. “The truth is the truth for us whether we’re scientists, theologians, believers or non-believers.”

With an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in marriage and family counseling, he also thought of pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology.

But for now, allowing God to heal people through the gifts of other mental health professionals is, in his words, “the wisest thing to do.”