The problem with praying away mental illness

1 Peter 5:7

 "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you."

Since most people in the U.S. identify as Christians, it's safe to assume that you may have heard this scripture more than once or twice over the course of your lifespan. Despite Christianity being the majority religion, many Christians are split when it comes to the topic of mental illness.

In fact, the stigma of mental health seems to magnify exponentially in religious groups. This is partially attributed to the notion that mental health is caused by demonic activity, an intergenerational curse, or a consequence of sin. This belief has been held by several religious groups for decades, if not centuries, and mislabels people with mental illnesses as spiritually impure or weak in faith. Some even go as far as to relegate deliverance of mental illness through some form of religious tradition, purification ceremony, or prayer.

While there has been significant research to disprove the belief that mental illness is caused solely by spiritual impurity, these beliefs are still commonplace in many religious spaces. While some churches have recognized the need to provide professional mental health services or referrals to community resources, some continue to preach messages of "pray away the mental illness," and use scriptures like 1 Peter 5:7 as the Biblical stamp of approval.

The problem with these "pray it away" messages, is that it fails to recognize that mental health is similar to physical health. If you think about it, no one blames a woman for being diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead, she's likely to receive support, prayer, AND professional treatment.  It's highly unlikely that her faith or "lifestyle" will be called into question. So why do we feel the need to make statements that suggest people "choose" depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders? Do you see how strange that seems?

Too often, people in the church have faced significant fear and shame at the thought of disclosing a mental illness and the possibility of being subjected to statements like...

  • If you attended church more often you wouldn't be dealing with this
  • That type of stuff doesn't happen if you're really saved
  • You must be doing something wrong because God would've delivered you by now
  • You just need to pray about it

Rather than expose themselves to these insensitive remarks, people would rather cope in silence than to face judgment and scrutiny of others.

The reality is that mental health treatment and faith do not have to be separate entities. You don't have to check Jesus at the door in order to seek professional counseling. In fact, several studies have shown that people of faith have better mental health outcomes when they participate in psychotherapy. The belief that life will improve or that one serves a greater purpose, aids in the therapeutic process for people of faith. But in order to undergo treatment, people must recognize psychotherapy as an option... and that starts with the messaging around God and mental health.

If your only form of advice is to say, "pray it away", then I'd suggest that you stay away from people with mental health concerns.

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These statements can do more damage than good, even if the intention is to uplift. At the end of the day, prayer is not the only tool we possess for healing. God gave the gift of healing to others as well... and they can also be found outside of the Church walls. They may be doctors, nurses, counselors, and psychiatrists.

People can be freed of shame and guilt once they recognize that healing can occur concurrently with faith, prayer, fasting, and psychotherapy. We should never be shamed or made to feel less than, if we decide to seek professional support. A person's faith is not deficient, nor is it a sign of spiritual immaturity if someone lives with a mental illness... It's a simple reminder of our humanness. Give yourself grace and mercy to seek the support that you need.