Mental Illness

Is mental illness a true physical illness, or a spiritual condition caused by sin? What does the Bible have to say about mental illness, and how we should treat a friend or family member who is mentally unstable?

Orginally posted 3/11/2005 on

Unfortunately, the Bible does not specifically address every situation that we encounter. Mental illness is one of those areas where we’re left to use our understanding of general biblical principles and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

Mental illness is just that–an illness. It’s not a personality flaw or a spiritual condition, although those are usually involved too, so it can be hard to separate the two. However, the physical illness must be addressed before someone can think clearly enough to evaluate their own spiritual condition.

James 2:16

If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

I think a principle we can take from this verse is that offering spiritual advice without practical help is of little value.

I have had [close] dealings with two different people who suffered from different forms of mental illness. One was my father, who became extremely depressed and obsessive/compulsive, to the point that he could not function. Our entire family agreed that he needed to go to the hospital, and although it was an immensely humbling step for him to take, he was willing to listen to us and voluntarily admit himself. He stayed in the pyschiatric ward for a while, and between the medicine and counseling, he regained the ability to function. He does not like being on medication, but if he cuts it back too far, he starts to slip into deep depression again. He is a devout Christian, who places a very high priority on holiness and adherance to God’s Word. I am convinced that his depression is a symptom of a chemical imbalance.

I have another friend, who I can only describe as a psychopath. He refuses to seek help or admit that he has a problem. He does not think rationally; he is angry and bitter and thinks the world is out to get him. Once he gets an idea in his head that he has been wronged, he absolutely cannot get it out of his head. For a number of years, I tried to be a friend and provide a listening ear. He would call me on the phone several times a week, and talk for an hour or more if I let him; I barely got a word in edgewise. However, he decided that there were some things I had said that he did not like, and that became the only thing he could talk about. It reached a point where we could no longer have a normal conversation, so I stopped talking to him. He would call me many times a day, all hours of the day, and leave nasty messages on my answering machine. I haven’t spoken to him for months, but he still calls occasionally just to leave an angry message. In this case, I cannot help him. There is nothing that I can say that is of any value to him, and just listening to him has no benefit to either of us. Since he is unwilling to seek counseling or a medical evaluation, I just stay away from him.

Rom 12:18

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

There will be cases where it’s not possible to live peaceably with someone. Read the Old Testament; God is not a pacifist. We are not to take judgement into our own hands, and we are to consider others as more important than ourselves, but we ought not let others walk all over us (see Luke 22:36).

1Co 5:11

But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

If someone claims to be a Christian, then they have an obligation to obey the Bible. If they refuse to listen, then it may be necessary to keep them at a distance.

Gal 6:2

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

If someone is unable to deal with their mental illness, then it is appropriate to take the necessary steps to get help for them. This can be difficult to make happen if they are unwilling, and someone else in the family does not have some sort of power of attorney (POA) for making medical decisions on their behalf.

Luk 18:7

And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?

Don’t give up on prayer. The widow in this parable had to pester the unjust judge to get a response, but God is not unjust; He will provide a solution. Loving someone means doing what is best for them. If someone is doing harm to those around them, it is better for their own sake that they not be left to continue behaving that way. They may not like what is best for them, and they may fight it. But if it’s within your power to help them, the loving thing to do is to endure the short-term pain of doing what is necessary to ensure their best interest in the long run.

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