Churches and psychiatry: “it’s complicated”

How should the church think about mental health ?

Our mental state is connected to body and spirit, and, like them, can be in a state of unhealthiness. In this perspectives section, leaders and health practitioners from Anabaptist-related congregations around the world address how their church has a role in caring for the mental health of their congregants.

Churches and psychiatry: “it’s complicated”

One of the things that surprises me the most in my work in psychiatry is the high number of people of faith hospitalized under our services. More precisely, the number of Christians.

“Of course, the patients speak about their beliefs and hopes more than in the other specialities.” But if one uses an objective marker, such as the presence of a Bible at the patient’s bedside, the impression seems to be confirmed: psychiatric services are overrun with Christians. Word has it that even Mennonites have been hospitalized.

Fear of loss of control

It is difficult to accept that a Christian would suffer from a psychiatric illness. We understand that people suffer from Alzheimers or that mental confusion can follow an illness because we have an explanation for these events. On the other hand, psychiatric troubles are not explicable from a direct cause. This frightens us because it suggests we are not immune. If the reason is unknown, why couldn’t it happen to me? And who knows what I might say in a moment of delirium? Even the most nonviolent Anabaptist could become threatening if he or she were subjected to a feeling of intense persecution. We feel overwhelmed and we look for answers.

Therefore, we ask: “Don’t you think that the mentally ill are often/sometimes/usually possessed?” It is difficult to accept that psychiatric diseases are often a consequence of the Fall. The person must have done something bad to have lost control of his or her thoughts, words and actions. We try to reassure ourselves by assigning responsibility for the illness to the one who is suffering.

According to a 2013 study by the l’Association Française Fédérative des Etudiants en Psychiatrie (French federal association of psychiatry students), the number of believers interning in psychiatry is significantly smaller than in other specialties. And yet, our patients speak of their faith more than in other service areas of the hospital.

Our patients pray. Our patients go to mass.

And the doctors ask: are these vulnerable people not at risk of being drawn into abusive cults? Do we need to protect them, and, if so, how? Where is the line between faith and mystical delirium?

Faith amid illness

When a person enters the psychiatric hospital where I work, he or she will quickly notice the chapel. It’s not a simple room converted into a chapel, but a real church that holds religious services and staffed by chaplains. Recently, a psychoanalyst said to the interns that priests excel in diagnosing mystical deliriums precisely because faith experiences offer another perspective.

Do churches have a role to play for people who are mentally ill? Well, why shouldn’t they? All churches are already home to people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, chronic depression, etc. I daresay that if a church welcomes more than a hundred people and none of your members has mental health challenges, the church either doesn’t know its members very well or should question its hospitality.

The church is involved whether it knows it or not. An estimated .8% of the population suffers from schizophrenia; that’s around 600,000 people in France. Do the math: how many people with schizophrenia should be in your church? How many are actually? This is not to cast blame on churches for not accommodating these people. In the majority of cases, the progress of the disease results in withdrawal from social contact and resistance to other’s overtures.

What a challenge for our churches!

And then there is anxiety, a common denominator among mental health disorders. The church offers a reassuring framework that can contribute to anchoring people in reality: the regularity and liturgy of worship, re-encountering resource people each week, participating in a family that does not give up.

As a psychiatrist in a secular country, my work consists of helping people to feel better, to be able to communicate with others, to be present in the world and to lead “a normal life.”

The work of the church regarding people who struggle with mental health is to be a place of safe and healthy relationships, where each one finds a place to belong, where the members are ready to welcome and walk alongside. Our role is to view those who are mentally ill as people who are created, loved, and capable of receive grace through faith in Christ. Don’t underestimate the impact of expressing compassionate concern for others devoid of fear. Effectively integrating people with mental health challenges into the church is both possible and extraordinary. I am convinced this exactly the kind of people among whom we would have found Christ when he was on earth. And so, church: to work!

—Alexina Yoder, originally from église de Delle in Belfort-Montbéliard, is a member of l’église mennonite de Strasbourg, France, and a psychiatry intern.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2017