What Is the Church’s Stance on Mental Illness?

What Is the Church’s Stance on Mental Illness?

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Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.

And Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of His Disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all the crowd sought to touch Him, for power came forth from Him. Luke 6: 17-19

Going to the Prayer Team e-mail bag once more, today’s question is this:

What is the Church’s stance on mental illness? 

The Prayer Team seeks to offer inspirational reflections in language that the common person can understand.  Thus, today’s reflection is not going to have the language of medicine.  I am not a doctor or an expert in mental illnesses.  What it will offer is an answer of compassion.

Before we examine this question, let me pose another question:  What is the Church’s stance on physical illness?  The answers are simple:  First, we recognize that physical illness is a part of the fallen world.  All of us will get physical illnesses.  Some will be temporary, like the cold or the flu, some will be permanent, like the loss of a limb.  Some will be acute, like a heart attack, and some will be gradual in onset, like arthritis.  Second, the Church believes in the power of medicine to heal illness.  The Church never tells people, “just pray and your broken leg will be healed.”  The Church encourages people to seek proper medical advice and treatment.  The Church offers prayers for the sick, as well as those who minister to them, at virtually every service.  The Church also offers counsel to those who are physically sick.  Physical illness is often accompanied by a spiritual component—people are down in spirit, perhaps angry with God, despondent or lose hope for the future, especially if the disease is permanent or incurable, i.e. a major stroke.  There is not much of a stigma attached to being physically sick.  Physical illness is part of pretty much every life.  People don’t have to feel guilty or inadequate if they get cancer or heart disease—most people will get one or the other, regardless of what kind of family they come from, what kind of career they have, and how much money they earn.

The Church’s response to mental illness should really be the same.  Although, I’m not positive that it is in all corners of our country or our world.  There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, which is unfortunate, there shouldn’t be.  Mental illness, like physical illness, is a result of the fallen world.  I truly believe that everyone will suffer mental illness at some point.  This may be temporary, such as grief when someone has passed away.  The shock and trauma associated with a major loss, do not allow for us to always think clearly, or “be in our right mind.”  This happens to everyone at some point in life.  Some mental illness, just like physical illness, is permanent.  Some physical illnesses allow a person to live a fairly full life and some are very restrictive on things one is able to do.  It is the same with mental illness.  Just as with physical illness, the Church believe in the power of medicine.  So the Church encourages people to seek out the proper psychological/psychiatric advice and treatment.  The Church offers counsel to those who have a mental illness, because just as with physical illness, there is usually a spiritual component associated.  I would never tell a person with a mental illness, “just pray it away.” I would encourage them to go and see the appropriate professional.

There are two areas where the Church, as well as society, can improve.  First, while I don’t believe that the Church would knowingly stigmatize someone with mental illness (certain parishioners might, but the Church does not, or at least should not), I believe the Church should do a better in telling people there should be no stigma associated with mental illness.  The Church needs to do a better job of making itself a safe haven for people to worship.  As our churches evolve, we are doing a better job (at least I hope we are) in building handicap ramps, having reserved parking spaces, etc., for those who suffer from physical illness.  The Church needs to be also doing things to make the experience of Christ more welcoming to those with mental illness.  Second, and most important, the Church still has many ideas it has brought from the “old countries” from which it came, and one of those ideas is that there is no such thing as mental illness.  People who are “off” just come for a blessing or pray harder, or some such thing.  We wouldn’t say that to someone with cancer or a broken leg.  So we shouldn’t say it to someone whose brain works a little different or who has cognitive struggles.

The Church’s position on mental illness should be one of prayer and compassion.  All people are in need of healing of some kind.  The Church is the spiritual hospital for the spiritual side effects that accompany physical and mental illness.  It is also try that the Church certainly has more that it can do to be this place of prayer and compassion for everyone.

In Thee, O Lord, do I see refuge; let me never be put to shame; in Thy righteousness deliver me!  Incline Thy ear to me, rescue me speedily!  Be Thou a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!  Yea, Thou art my rock and my fortress; for Thy name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net which is hidden for me, for Thou art my refuge.  Into Thy hand I commit my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.  Psalm 31:1-5

Do your part to make your church community a place of prayer as well as compassion for everyone.  We will all suffer from a degree of both physical and mental illness at some point in our lives.

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0