Friday, April 12, 2013

Conservative Christians and stigma around mental health issues

The famous conservative evangelical pastor Rick Warren's song Matthew committed suicide recently. (Joseph Serna, Rick Warren son 'probably not' owner of gun in suicide, cops say Los Angeles Times 04/10/2013)

This news brought to public light the reality that many conservative Christians retain a sense of deep shame and denial in relation to mental illness and other clinical psychological problems.

This article from a site called A Holy Experience, What Christians Need to Know about Mental Health 04/08/2013, by Ann Voskamp, who identifies herself as "a plain Ann without even the fanciful 'e', wife to The Farmer, mama to six, and honestly, I'm a bit of a mess."

Her article is about a family, presumably her own, in which the mother suffered severe depression in connection with cancer. She starts off with a "Dear Church" introduction saying, "Cancer can be deadly and so can depression. So can the dark and the shame and the crush of a thousand skeletons, a thousand millstones, a thousand internal infernos."

The mother required in-patient treatment for depression. She writes, "My Dad, he had told me that if I told, it'd slit us all." I really did a double-take on that line. I came up with a benign interpretation that it's probably a typo, and that she meant to say her father was warning that if the kids told people Mom was in a psychiatric ward, it would "split" up the family.

She does reflect how such a charge from a parent can feel to a child:

So much for believing the Truth will set you free. So much weight for a wide-eyed nine-year-old.

So I locked lips and heart hard so no one knew about the locked wards and the psychiatric doctors and why my mama was gone and it’s crazy how the stigma around mental health can drive you right insane."
Her post is apparently to tell people it's all right to recognize that people have psychiatric problems that has nothing to do with some spiritual state of sin:

There are some who take communion and anti-depressants and there are those who think both are a crutch.

Come in close — I'd rather walk tall with a crutch than crawl around insisting like a proud and bloody fool that I didn’t need one. [emphasis in original]
But in that formulation and in the rest of the post, what comes through is a remaining heavy sense of stigma. "the dark and the shame" that she speaks of in his introduction.

Are there things going on in religious communities that promote such attitudes above and beyond ordinary fear and lack of medical understanding?

There are a few obvious things. One is that Christian fundamentalists are by definition anti-science in some important sense, although one of the characteristics of fundamentalism is to argue against science in terms that mimic the techniques of science. Another is that fundamentalist Christianity has a mystical core related to the Pietist tradition that assumes that people can have a direct interaction with God that is in theory is not different than material, "real-world" experience. And that mystical union of the believer with God is generally assumed to produce general happiness in the believer's life, making any chronic disturbance of the kind represented by depression or other clinical conditions a sign of inadequate faith or a damaged relationship with God.

Third, there is a belief in faith-healing. The faith-healing services are particularly associated with the Pentecostal tradition, but Catholics also have faith healers and faith-healing services, which depending on the parish can lean more to the superstitious or to the abstract-spiritual side. But non-Pentecostal fundamentalists and even more mainstream of liberals church-goers generally have some sense that praying for the sick at least may result in a more-or-less supernatural recovery.

Finally, there the Pentecostal (or neo-Pentecostal if you prefer) practice of deliverance, i.e, exorcism of demons. Which can be especially potent in promoting denial and shame when it comes to mental illness. This is largely but not exclusively the province of neo-Pentecostals in the Christian world. The Catholic Church has a relatively discrete but active deliverance ministry, although there are Church rules that put formal constraints on how its practiced. (Though it's not particularly relevant here, the encouragement of exorcism is associated with hardline reactionaries in the Catholic Church.)

Stephen Hunt in Managing the demonic: Some aspects of the neo‐Pentecostal deliverance ministry Journal of Contemporary Religion 13:2 (1998) addressed the deliverance ministries as they were practiced at that time, with particular reference to the British context. (You probably need access to a library database for the link to work.) He does a good job of explaining how in some contexts, "deliverance" can be a relatively benign ritual that owes such to the "encounter group therapy" and he notes that "early exponents were influenced by Carl Roger's work." In a well-managed small group therapy of more of a workshop type, "This can be quite cathartic in the sense that deliverance appears to sometimes marry confession with a rigourous self-directing therapy." And he cites one such example:

For instance, on one occasion at a healing centre, I witnessed Paul (not his real name), a young middle-class Anglican charismatic, stand up before some 70 people and admit to pre-marital sex with his wife. He was subsequently delivered of a spirit of 'guilt' and supported by a long period of counselling.
Leaving aside for a moment whether its really healthy to encourage a sense of guilt about boinking your partner before marriage, that does sound benign and kind of sweet. If he had confessed to have been sleeping with her best friend before their marriage, that might have had more upsetting consequences, I'm guessing. He also mentions that in the deliverance ceremonies, "The concern with the previous sexual behaviour of believers by those advancing deliverance reaches almost the point of obsession."

But then there's the full-blown holy-roller, Linda Blair-in-The Exorcist type of ceremonies. And those are considerably less benign. Where the encounter group context may use the notion of evil spirits mainly as a kind of metaphor for the frustrations and problems of life, the holy-roller version treats demons as kind of parasitic infections in the body and soul of the victim.

No, this is not what a virus or a mental health problem looks like

It's interesting to note here that while non-Pentecostal fundamentalists tend to regard exorcism as something to stay the hell away from - sorry, I couldn't resist! - the "literalist" reading of Scripture to which they adhere, i.e., reading the Christian Bible as though it were a history and science text, pretty much leaves them stuck believing in the reality of demonic possession in some way. That is, as a literal infection by some kind of foreign body, not as a metaphor.

I'll just mention in passing here that the early Christians came to regard the gods of "pagan" religions as evil spirits. The Greek word "daimon" (demon) in the New Testament derived from a Greek word for "divine"; the transformation is a case of a word taking on an opposite meaning, and probably reflects in part the notion of regarding foreign gods as not just foreign and unfriendly but actively evil. More mainstream Christians don't have much trouble in regarding the demon stories in the New Testament as meant to describe a religious outlook rather than as medical texts.

As Hunt describes, in the Pentecostal or "charismatic" religious world, demons are not only viewed as causing mental illness like some kind of germ. He notes that "in the hands of charismatic" there is an emphasis also on "demons as representing negative emotions." And in the fundamentalist/Pentecostal world, all sorts of emotions, including very normal and healthy responses to real conditions, are stigmatized as sinful

If the belief in literal demons seems superstitious, which it certainly is, it may seem that such a belief in itself is a sign of some clinical problem. But presumably for most people who believe it it, it's something that seems creepy and scary and they would shy away from deliverance ceremonies of the more extreme type. However, the literal belief that demons can cause mental illness almost certainly makes it much easier for such believers to fear mental illness as something uniquely evil and frightening. And if you do hold such beliefs and find yourself having serious emotional/mental problems, you not only have to worry about the clinical problems. You have to worry that your body and soul are being inhabited by a malignant spirit that is trying to drag you down to Hell.

These fearful associations are encouraged by the holy-roller deliverance ceremonies, which Hunt notes "can be extremely violent with a great deal of shaking or involve lying on the floor with limbs thrashing about," and also "a great deal of weeping." The ceremonies may also involve those seeking deliverance "screaming, crying, sobbing, belching, laughing, and screeching." Kind of like an episode of American Horror Story Asylum. Hunt observes dryly, "This is particularly unnerving for the outsider to witness." And it undoubtedly has similar effects even though they assimilate the experience in a different way.

Which brings me to this article by Frank Viola, 3 Christian Responses to Mental Illness; Which One Is Most Biblical? Christian Post 04/11/2013, addressing concerns among conservative Christians raised by Matthew Warren's suicide:

Throughout my years of being involved in various and sundry Christian movements and denominations, it seems that Christians understand mental disorders in one of three chief ways:

1. Mental illness is demonic in origin. So the antidote is to cast out the demons that are causing it.
2. Mental illness is psychobabble. There's no such thing as a "mental disorder." All so-called mental illnesses are just sinful behaviors. So the antidote is for person to repent and get right with God.
3. Mental illness is a physiological disorder. The brain is a physical organ just like the heart, the thyroid, the joints, etc. Thus if someone has panic attacks or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or chronic depression or ADHD, they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, not dissimilar to a hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure or arthritis.

I cut my teeth on a movement that promoted #1. I've met many people who believed #2. But I believe #3 is often the case.
The tone of his article is telling. Instead of telling his readers, look, people, don't be conned by some exorcist who wants to hear lurid stories about your sex life and who may be looking to get some nookie out it somehow, recognize that it's the 21st century and there are ways to get help for clinical psychological and psychiatric problems. And if your fellow church members thinks there's something shameful about that, then you can forgive them for their stupidity and superstition after you or your family member get treatment for depression, or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or bulimia, or whatever it is. If your local exorcist drives out a common-cold demon, the cold will probably magically go away in a week or two. But you also might want to get some cough drops and be careful not to let it develop into a pneumonia demon while you're waiting.

But alcoholism or schizophrenia, hey, don't be a fool about it!

Viola doesn't tell his readers that. In fact, he even says explicitly, "Sometimes demons are involved in mental illness, but not always."

No, demons are not involved in mental illness. And you're doing no one but exorcist hucksters any good by promoting that view.

Viola's article is revealing, though, in that he seems to actually be encouraging his readers to recognize that mental health problems are health problems that require medical treatment. Yet he seems to have believed that the conservative Christian audience that the Christian Post serves needed a reassurance that he was down with the fundamentalist belief that demons cause health problems like some kind of virus or germ.

Fundis are always whining that somebody is persecuting them for their Christian beliefs. The truth is in America that people are pretty much free to believe any dang fool thing they want about religion or anything else. But when religious beliefs lead people to neglect real healthy problems out of fear or superstition or shame, that can do real harm. And American Christians who promote such beliefs should expect other Christians to call them on it, both for promoting something dangerous and for giving the religion and bad name in doing so.

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