The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 20, 2013

Religion's role in treating legions with mental illness

By Karen Middleton

— As unfathomable as it seems to rational people, many jeered the April suicide of Matthew Warren, 27-year-old son of evangelical pastor Rick Warren.

Why wasn’t Warren, the author of the popular “The Purpose Driven Life” and with a large following throughout the Christian world, able to cure his son’s lifelong struggle with mental illness through faith and prayer?

Did these jaded, cynical commentators on Warren’s horrible misfortune believe that Warren likened himself to Jesus who cured the Gerasene Demoniac in the Book of Luke (8:26-39) by driving out his demons?

There are dozens of instances in both the Old and New Testaments where people are referred to as being possessed by “demons.” The Gerasene Demoniac responded when Jesus asked his name, “My name is Legion, for I am many,” meaning that he had as many as 6,000 demons or voices within him controlling his behavior.

These days, the “legions” might refer to the high numbers of people suffering from mental illness. Even in recent times, exorcists are believed to be able to drive invading evil spirits or demonic possession from victims’ minds and bodies and cure them of their bizarre or violent behavior.

Modern theologians and religious leaders now believe that in many of those biblical cases people were suffering from extreme psychosis. Peter Smith, religion writer for the online (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal reports that Southern Baptists in June approved a resolution at their annual meeting in Houston affirming medical intervention.

“So strong was the affirmation for medical intervention that the convention even rejected a proposed floor amendment that would have reaffirmed ‘Scripture is the final authority on all mental health issues.’”

This position is a turnaround from a convention resolution just 11 years before which acknowledged mental illness “sometimes” needs a medical response, but “urged skepticism about modern mental health approaches,” according to Smith.

The Rev. Edwin Jenkins, pastor of First Baptist Church of Athens, is not so quick to dismiss the concept of demons and says Christians are in an ongoing “war” against evil in the world. However, Jenkins said it is his mission to lead his congregation in eliminating the stigma against mental illness.

Jenkins, who is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors, says, “everybody we see on the street or the person in the pew next to you may have difficulties in life — we need to reach out to others.” But he acknowledges, “we as counselors have to recognize our limits.”

“Mental illness has to do with physical causes — chemical imbalances,” said Jenkins. “As such, it should be treated medically. I am a biblical counselor in a pastoral way, but when I discern that someone has a clinical challenge, I help find someone to help them more appropriately than I. I definitely recommend and refer, and if they need medication, there’s nothing wrong in accepting it.”

The Rev. Jimmy Bassham of First United Methodist Church of Athens, who describes himself as a “middle-of-the-road Methodist,” said, “From our standpoint, it’s not demons but a real affliction and it’s not the fault of the person suffering from it.

“We believe that a relationship with God is at the heart of all human life, and a person benefits from that relationship,” said Bassham.

Bassham said he views himself as a “general practitioner.” He feels qualified to offer spiritual counseling and believes in the “impact” of prayer in alleviating situational depression, but when he detects deeper-seated clinical problems he knows to point the way to other solutions.

“I know enough to recommend counselors who are better trained than I,” he said. “I would only try to be supportive in a pastoral sense, in an affirmation of support.”

Lifelong Church of Christ member and former probate judge Mike Davis said that everyone would benefit from having “faith and prayer incorporated into their lives.”

“I would hope that that would help, but at the same time the reality is that we must be able to recognize mental illness and those affected should be treated.”

Davis, who in his 28 1/2 years as probate judge presided over the commitment of numerous mentally ill residents, said he feels it is beneficial that the stigma against mental health is disappearing.

“I see more public awareness and people being more knowledgeable in how to treat mental illness and I am grateful for that,” said Davis. “We are well behind the times in realizing that it affects a lot of our citizens.”