Mental Distress—When It Afflicts a Christian
MENTAL-HEALTH experts say that perhaps 1 in 5 individuals in the United States suffers some sort of recognizable mental disorder. The World Health Organization adds that there may be as many as 40 million untreated cases of mental illness in developing lands. Mental problems have even been discovered among some inhabitants of the paradisaic Pacific isles.
It should therefore not surprise us that a number of Christians today experience mental or emotional difficulties ranging from simple anxiety and mild depression to serious illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorders (manic-depression), phobias, and schizophrenia. Some had such problems before becoming Witnesses, while others have begun suffering distress in their older years.
Why Christians Are Not Immune
One Christian woman with over 20 years of dedicated service reports being tormented by forceful and unrelenting voices. “I’ll be thinking on any other subject,” says she, “and up comes the voice saying, ‘kill yourself.’ . . . Over and over you hear these voices until you can’t take it anymore.” How is it possible for a faithful Christian to suffer this way? Does not 2 Timothy 1:7 say: “God gave us not a spirit of cowardice, but that of power and of love and of soundness of mind”?
Yes, but soundness of mind generally refers less to psychological well-being than to a Christian’s ability to exercise Bible-based judgment. Unlike a person of the world who is “in darkness mentally,” or “corrupted in mind,” a Christian has ‘made his mind over’ by studying God’s Word. (Ephesians 4:17, 18; 2 Timothy 3:8; Romans 12:2) This unquestionably does much to promote a Christian’s emotional and mental balance, yet it does not make him immune to mental health problems. Some faithful servants of God in Bible times, such as Epaphroditus, suffered forms of mental distress.—Philippians 2:25, 26; Luke 2:48.
“In Adam all are dying,” the apostle Paul reminds us. (1 Corinthians 15:22) Many of us have obvious physical ailments. Others suffer from mental or emotional sickness.
Causes of Mental Distress
Physical factors appear to be at the root of many cases of mental distress. For example, the Bible tells of a person whose eyes “see strange things.” The cause of such mysterious hallucinations? “Staying a long time with the wine”! (Proverbs 23:29-33) Clearly, alcohol can cause the brain to hallucinate. Doctors say that in a similar way, faulty brain chemistry, genetic factors, and possibly even diet can cause brain malfunctions. Mental and emotional difficulties can result.*
Strong psychological pressures, such as stress, may also trigger emotional problems. Simply trying to maintain moral purity and a Christian personality in these “critical times hard to deal with” can be a source of stress. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Why, Lot “was tormenting his righteous soul” over the wickedness he was daily exposed to in Sodom! (2 Peter 2:8) Furthermore, some Christians have been mentally affected because of having been raped, sexually abused, or owing to past acts of promiscuity or drug abuse. Such things can exact a fearsome toll on a person’s mental health.
What Elders Can Do
Elders are concerned with shepherding all the flock entrusted to their care—including those suffering emotional distress. (1 Peter 5:2; Isaiah 32:1, 2) True, they are not doctors, and they cannot cure individuals of their ills any more than the apostle Paul cured Epaphroditus of his physical sickness or subsequent depression. (Philippians 2:25-29) Yet, by showing real concern and fellow feeling, they can often do much to help and encourage such ones.—1 Peter 3:8.
What, then, if a brother begins behaving peculiarly or complains of emotional upheaval? The elders may first try to draw out the sufferer, trying to determine just what is bothering him. Has some personal calamity or unusually stressful circumstance—perhaps the loss of a job or death of a loved one—temporarily thrown him off balance? (Ecclesiastes 7:7) Is the afflicted one mildly depressed due to loneliness and thus in need of someone to “speak consolingly” to him? (1 Thessalonians 5:14) Or could it be that the brother is disturbed over some personal shortcoming? Reassurance of God’s love and mercy—along with appropriate counsel—may help to alleviate his anxieties. (Psalm 103:3, 8-14) Much good may be accomplished simply by praying with the distressed brother.—James 5:14.
Elders can also share practical wisdom with the sufferer. (Proverbs 2:7) For example, we noted that some emotional disturbances may be related to diet. The elders may therefore suggest that the brother eat balanced meals and avoid dietary extremes. Or they may discern that the distressed one has been under great pressure on his job and would benefit greatly from “a handful of rest”—more regularly getting a good night’s sleep.—Ecclesiastes 4:6.
Those Who ‘Need a Physician’
When severe distress persists, though, it is well to recall Jesus’ words: “Persons in health do not need a physician, but the ailing do.” (Matthew 9:12) Many distressed persons are reluctant to see a physician. Elders and family members may thus need to encourage a brother to seek medical attention, such as having a thorough examination by a trusted doctor. Says Professor Maurice J. Martin: “A wide variety of physical diseases masquerade as psychiatric disorders.” And even where mental illness really is involved, effective treatments often exist.
The wife of an elder tells how her disturbed husband “became afraid to be around the brothers and didn’t want to go to the meetings. . . . He desperately wanted to die!” But after he received professional medical attention, his wife was able to report: “He is no longer deeply depressed, nor does he want to stay away from meetings. This morning he gave the public talk!”
Admittedly, not all situations are resolved so easily. Science is just beginning to unravel the mysteries of mental problems. Getting properly diagnosed and treated can be a long, complicated process—but it often pays off.
Afflicted by the Demons?
Some victims of mental difficulties fear they are under demonic attack, claiming at times to hear “voices.” True, the demons have been known to make sane individuals behave irrationally. (Mark 5:2-6, 15) There is no proof that the demons are involved in most cases of bizarre behavior, any more than that they are involved in all cases of speechlessness, blindness, and epilepsy. Yet, back in Bible times, the demons sometimes caused (or at least aggravated) these very ailments! (Matthew 9:32, 33; 12:22; 17:15-18) The Bible makes a clear distinction, though, between “those who were ill and those demon-possessed.” (Mark 1:32-34; Matthew 4:24; Acts 5:16) Obviously, then, the vast majority of cases of blindness or epilepsy today are caused by physical—not demonic—factors. The same no doubt can be said of most cases of mental distress.
Still, it must be remembered that Satan and his demons are ‘waging war’ with God’s people and have been known to harass faithful Christians. (Revelation 12:17; Ephesians 6:12) The demons are fiendish, and it should not surprise us that they take sadistic delight in tormenting some mentally distressed souls—compounding their difficulties.
So if the elders have good reason to suspect that demonic influence is involved, there is no harm in their making some inquiry. Has the person, for example, received any suspicious items directly and deliberately from individuals who are involved in some form of demonism? Disposal of such objects may bring relief. (Acts 19:18-20) Since Christians are told to “oppose the Devil,” the elders can also advise the afflicted one to reject any strange “voices” that could be of demonic origin. (James 4:7; Matthew 4:10) If a person feels under attack, he should pray fervently, calling upon Jehovah’s name out loud.—Ephesians 6:18; Proverbs 18:10.
Demonic involvement, however, appears to be the exception—not the rule. One sister relates: “I thought I was possessed by a demon until I sought medical help and was informed that I had a chemical imbalance. It gave me great relief to find out that it was an illness that was causing my actions and not some demon person that was inside of me!”
A variety of medications are now used by doctors in the treatment of mental disturbances. Medically supervised use of some such medications has permitted severely ill Christians to function normally. Some well-intentioned brothers, though, have discouraged patients from taking prescribed medication, perhaps fearing that it might be harmful or addictive. There are, of course, risks involved with any kind of medical treatment, and “the shrewd one considers his steps,” considering long-term results.—Proverbs 14:15.
Interestingly, however, many psychiatric drugs are not hallucinogenic, tranquilizing, or addictive; they serve merely to correct chemical imbalances in the brain. Antipsychotics, for example, may help to tame the often bizarre symptoms of schizophrenia. Lithium can help to ease depression and level the highs and lows of manic-depression.
Granted, powerful drugs are sometimes used to tranquilize a patient or to suppress suicidal tendencies. Yet, if a brother is taking prescribed medication not for pleasure but so that he can function normally, this can be viewed in much the same way as a diabetic’s using insulin.
It should be remembered that psychiatric medications are often slow acting and may have unpleasant side effects. At times, too, there is a measure of trial and error in a doctor’s finding an effective medication and/or dosage that produces the fewest side effects. Patients often become discouraged. Family members and others can therefore be supportive of the person undergoing treatment, encouraging him to be patient and to cooperate with qualified medical personnel. What if he has questions about a certain medication? Or what if problems develop or a treatment seems ineffective? Such problems should be discussed with his physician.* If necessary, a second opinion can be obtained.
In some cases, consideration may also be given to having the patient talk matters out with a trained professional. Perhaps a trusted family doctor who is personally acquainted with the patient can serve in this way. What, though, about accepting treatment from a psychiatrist or a psychologist? This would be a personal decision to be made with due caution. Therapists differ in their approaches to treatment. Some, for example, still practice forms of Freudian psychoanalysis, the validity of which is challenged by many in the mental health field.
Of even more concern is the fact that some well-intentioned practitioners have given advice that flatly contradicts the Bible. Failing to understand Christian principles—even viewing such as “foolishness”—some therapists have even concluded that following the Bible’s strict moral code is the source of a person’s difficulties!—1 Corinthians 2:14.
However, some practitioners, including psychologists and psychiatrists, offer forms of talk therapy that are not really psychoanalysis but are a means of helping a patient to understand his illness, reinforcing the need for medication, and ironing out practical problems. A Christian may find such therapies helpful, but he needs to get his facts straight before accepting treatment: Just what does the treatment involve? What kind of advice will be given? Does the physician understand and respect the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses?* If talk therapy is agreed to, ‘test out the words’ of a doctor instead of just accepting everything unquestioningly.—Job 12:11, 12.
For the most part, then, mental distress can be viewed as a medical problem—not a spiritual one. Understanding this fact, families, elders, and congregation members can better be of support to sufferers. At times distressed ones also need spiritual support. How the congregation can provide this will be considered in a future issue.
See the October 22, 1987, and September 8, 1986, issues of our companion magazine, Awake!
The Society does not recommend or pass judgment upon the various medications and treatments employed by physicians. Research in the Society’s publications may, nevertheless, prove helpful.
If an ill one has difficulty explaining his Bible-based stand to a physician or therapist, perhaps some mature Christian can assist him.
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By being sympathetic listeners and counselors, elders can often help persons suffering emotional distress
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Sometimes it is advisable for a mentally ill person to seek medical help