Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rewind SGM Radio: Getting Past The Christian Stigma of Depression Part 2 - February 2009

Getting Past the Christian Stigma of Depression Part 2
By Lorraine Walker

Mental illness is a confirmed disease, invading our society, our churches and our leaders. Last month we discussed the prevalence of this disease and specifically, depression. This month we look at what happens when a Christian begins to look for help for their illness. We welcome back our Mental Health panel of Dr. Bob Nichols, Jimmy McMillan and Timothy Mills to discuss the connection between spirituality and mental health.

For many years and indeed centuries, mental illness has been shrouded in mystery. Often seen in religious circles as a manifestation of evil, the disease has caused the church to back away from those who have been struggling with this horror. This would add a burden of guilt to the sick who were told they were being punished or had failed to live up to another’s religious ideal. To deal with a disease that is often wrongly diagnosed, misinterpreted and maltreated would be more than most of us could handle. To add to this the fear of being misunderstood or even condemned by a spiritual leader would be enough to keep the sick person from seeking help of any kind.

Dr. Bob Nichols (pictured, left), mental health expert, is aware that many spiritual leaders lack the training and knowledge to correctly identify mental illness. “Sad to say, most churches have very little participation in mental illness. Most pastors trained in evangelical seminaries have only one or two classes in pastoral counseling and most of the emphasis is placed on theology and preaching.”

Often small churches with only one or two pastors lack the resources necessary to provide additional counseling and sometimes the leadership relies on insufficient knowledge to inaccurately diagnose what is happening to the parishioner. This can result in many years of misery if that person does not look elsewhere for help but accepts the authority of the misguided leader. Fortunately, many churches have alternate resources for counseling and leadership that will recognize the need for help from other sources.

Jimmy McMillan (pictured, left), southern gospel artist and one who suffers with clinical depression, comments on the church’s involvement in mental health treatment. “Unfortunately the vast majority of churches I see have few resources beyond pastoral counseling to effectively handle the needs of those with mental illness,” says Jimmy. “Often the pastor can and will refer someone for help elsewhere. Understandably it is often only the ‘mega churches’ that have resources within themselves.”

“If you look at the percentages however this leaves a great number of Christians totally dependent on secular treatment,” Jimmy continues. “It seems to me that where I have seen programs in place they were well promoted and readily available. One would like to think that if a church has a treatment plan or facility in place, there would be a spirit of understanding and compassion in that body. This would make the initial act of asking for help much ‘more safe’ for someone suffering with mental illness.”

Often when the subject of mental health comes up in religious circles, the question arises regarding the connectedness between this disease and evil oppression or even demonic possession. As more study is done on the diagnosis and treatment of mental health, it is obvious that there is a connection between the spiritual, the physical and the emotional. However, the knee-jerk reaction of some to see depression as demonic possession can be not only exceedingly harmful but also life-threatening.

Timothy Mills (pictured, left), southern gospel artist and psychology student, has a firm response to this view. “What is happening in this manner, in my opinion, is that Christians are comparing apples and oranges. Do I believe in demon possession? It is in the Bible, so my answer is yes. Do I believe that mental illness exists? Of course, but the problem is that when similar actions occur people tend to think that the source of ailment is similar. We would not do this with other ailments, but jump in with both feet in regards to mental illness.”

“The ‘inter-connectiveness’ of mental, physical and spiritual aspects of all things should be obvious. The problem lies in the perspective of the observer. Most researchers have a favorite area of expertise and while many acknowledge the connections, their prejudices cloud their data and research. A health guru acknowledges the spiritual, but primarily promotes the physical. A pastor promotes the spiritual while downplaying the mental. And the list goes on and on. Imagine traveling to Florence, Italy and observing 4 people admiring the statue of David. One person would say, ‘This is a great work of art because of the technical perfection of Michelangelo.’ Another would say, ‘No! The statue of David is a great work of art because of the beauty of the stone!’ Another would have a different opinion and argue over the validity of their point of view. All have different reason on why the statue is great; yet, their egocentric thoughts prevented them from seeing the merits of the other.”

Dr. Nichols agrees that the three states are connected and yet many try to separate them. “This is obviously a huge issue of discussion in theological circles,” says Dr. Nichols. “I wish I had an accurate brief answer. From my perspective, the three necessary areas need to be addressed simultaneously: spiritual, emotional and physical. The difficulty is the ‘exclusiveness’ of each expertise.”

“I recently had a consult in the Pacific Northwest,” continues Dr. Nichols. “The client was early forties and experiencing violent psychotic episodes. I advised her pastor to take her to a psychiatrist. Thus begins the incredibly difficult journey. They could not go directly to a specialist but had to first go to their family doctor, which they did not have. Then a ‘referral’ was obtained but they could not get an appointment for two weeks. Finally when they were able to get in to see the psychiatrist, all he did was listen to her, performed no tests and prescribed Prozac. This simply appalled me. No blood work, no emotional evaluation, just a quick prescription and on to the next patient.”

Dr. Nichols continues, “When I inquired about the psychological exams, the doctor responded that he did not do that sort of thing, they would need to see a psychologist. He made no referrals, so they began again to search for a psychologist to help. Desiring a Christian psychologist, I gave them a referral and finally they got in. After a couple of evaluations, the psychologist diagnosed ‘Bi-polar 2.’”

“With this information, we went back to the psychiatrist, and he adjusted his prescription. Then we took this lady to a “Christian counselor” who was experienced with disassociatives. Now with all three in place, we begin to see progress. The psychiatrist was looking after the physiological, neuro- and bio-chemical, the hormones, etc. The psychologist was watching and evaluating the emotional progress and the pastoral counselors were working weekly with the spiritual and emotional aspects.”

Dr. Nichols adds, “In some states they practice ‘tandem therapy’ where the psychiatrist and psychologist work together developing a composite diagnosis and plan of therapy. What a beautiful plan, especially if the ‘pastoral counselors’ were added to the mix. Obviously the pastoral counselors would need training to intelligently interface with the other professionals.”

Jimmy McMillan, who has dealt with his condition for several years and has seen his share of professionals, agrees that there is a connection between the spiritual, physical and emotional. He has heard often the question of whether or not mental illness is demon possession. “I believe the question answers itself,” says Jimmy. “Either someone is demon possessed or they are mentally ill. If someone is possessed they need an exorcism and not Prozac. Once again mental illness is just that, an illness. Do we tie down the diabetic and stand over them with holy water, a crucifix and a prayer book? No we give them insulin! The same with the heart disease or cancer patient, we treat them. This whole subject is a big part of the reason people will not come forward for help within the church.”

Jimmy continues, “With regards to spiritual and emotional connection, there is a huge one. When God gives you a blessing, yes, you will be on an emotional high. The same goes when one is under conviction for a wrongdoing. The difference is both of these are temporary and the latter is resolved by simple repentance. Yes, your spiritual situation can effect your emotional and at times your physical well being, the Bible shows us that. But unless we are willing to walk through the oncology ward looking down our noses and telling every patient there that their illness and long term prognosis is due to some spiritual shortcoming, we must not attach this judgment to mental illness.”

We have a long way to go in our understanding of mental illness and its diagnosis and treatment. The first step is for us as the Church to recognize its validity and then to find ways to provide the help that is needed for those who suffer its devastating effects.

In Part Three, our panel will discuss how the Church can provide effective help to those with mental illness and what each of us can do to reach those around us who may be suffering from this disease.

For More Information:
Dr. Bob Nichols is an expert on mental illness and works with pastors to assist them back to a state of mental health. He has a doctorate in theology and psychology and over thirty years in ministry.

Jimmy McMillan is a southern gospel artist with McMillan And Life, and is a Christian who suffers from clinical depression.

Timothy Mills, southern gospel artist with The Southern Brothers, is pursuing his degree in Psychology. .

For more information on mental health please log onto:
The National Institute of Mental Health:
United States Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

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