Inner Healing Ministry Meets Mental Illness: How to Navigate the Physical and Spiritual

This guest blog comes to us from Kristen Kansiewicz, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor on staff at East Coast International Church in Lynn, MA. In addition to her counseling practice, Kristen is the author of four books, including On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. She also blogs about mental health and the church at ChurchTherapy.com. You can also find her on Twitter (@ChurchTherapist).

So you’re struggling with anxiety, or maybe it’s depression, Bipolar Disorder, or PTSD. You’re searching for answers, looking for something that could make it all go away. Maybe you’ve started taking medication, or perhaps you are still wondering if that’s okay. “Shouldn’t Christians be able to handle their emotions?” you wonder.

In some churches, particularly those in Pentecostal or charismatic circles, you might find an inner healing ministry geared towards releasing you from your past or eliminating your symptoms. Perhaps your pastor has even recommended that you participate because of your emotional struggles. For many with symptoms of mental illness, the journey through an inner healing process can be confusing, triggering, and often unhelpful.

As a point of clarification, let us recognize that inner healing is an important part of what Jesus came to do. We all need to be healed, restored, and redeemed. How we go about that is another matter entirely.

Most inner healing ministry experiences in which I have participated or about which I have heard from a direct source have one thing in common: they rely heavily on emotion. For Christians who do not have mental health problems or symptoms of a mental illness, these emotional experiences often work to provide a physical and spiritual release from bondage. Looking at it from a neuroscientific perspective, the brain is activated and engaged in developing new pathways when we experience something new (a new thought or idea, for example). The brain functions this way so that we can learn and adapt. A highly emotional experience is more memorable and can stimulate the brain in multiple ways to change our emotions and thoughts. Spiritually speaking, prayer can open doors for healing as we seek first God’s kingdom, in which everyone is set free. We may experience feelings that help us embrace God’s love or forgiveness, or we may realize the truth about who we are in Christ.

Put this highly emotional experience inside a brain that is not functioning correctly, as is the case when mental health symptoms are present, and you often have a recipe for disaster. When emotion regulation is difficult for you on a regular, everyday basis, entering into a highly emotional and spiritualized context can overload your brain. This can sometimes trigger symptoms, heightening your anxiety or bringing up trauma flashbacks. You may also feel worse when you go through an inner healing process that does not eliminate your symptoms (which is likely to be the case if you have a clinical disorder). Many are left believing that they did not experience inner healing because they did not have enough faith or they did something wrong. Some wonder how they can hear from God if they cannot continue in the inner healing process.

So how are we to understand and go about pursuing healing? First, let’s focus on Jesus. Biblical examples of Jesus healing people generally do not involve a heightened emotional process. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter, for example, he made everyone except those who were closest to the situation stay outside while he quietly entered and raised the girl to life. There are no examples of Jesus playing on emotion, shouting, or otherwise being overly intense in the healing process.

Because mental health issues present unique challenges, an inner healing ministry may be overwhelming for you. Unless it is led by a professionally trained Christian counselor, it is likely your emotions and triggers will be too much for a lay minister or pastor to handle properly. Long-term Christian counseling is most likely a better form of inner healing for you as you seek wellness with a trained professional who can discern proper treatment for your symptoms and can work through spiritual issues as well. Unlike a brief inner healing course, counseling can go at your pace and help you manage your emotions that arise during the process.

Another thing to keep in mind is that healing takes time. Your symptoms may or may not become “cured,” but symptoms can be reduced or managed with proper treatment such as counseling and medication. Is it possible for God to instantly heal you from your symptoms? Absolutely. But more often, just as in the case of other physical disorders like cancer or diabetes, treatment and recovery is a process. It takes time to heal. Particularly with emotional disorders, time devoted to treatment and self-care are essential parts of getting and staying well.

Mental illness does not change your spiritual standing before God, and you can relate to God and experience freedom in Christ. As you seek to listen to the Holy Spirit, remember to focus on balance and emotion regulation. A relaxation or guided visualization exercise, for example, may be helpful when led by a professional Christian counselor. Because your mind may interfere in quiet moments by yourself, clinging to the Word can help provide grounding in a chaotic emotional place.

As with any type of illness or physical disorder, healing is always possible but often does not happen on earth. As Christians we have hope and faith that we will enter into a healed state when we enter God’s kingdom. May this hope drive you to seek to be well one day at a time.

Caring Well For Those Living With Mental Illness

This blog post comes to us from Kalee Vandegrift, a MFT intern with a degree from Fuller's School of Psychology. We love her heart for hurting people and here she gives us a great overview of mental health and the church. Check it out: 

Those who experience mental illness are part of one of the most marginalized communities in society. This often occurs subtly, and the lack of attention on mental illness makes this group feel even more insignificant and like outsiders. This dismissal, whether intended or not, can leave people feeling hurt, lonely and discriminated against. Within mental illness there is a broad range of diagnoses and intensities. I don’t want to speak towards the nuances and issues of individual diagnoses, but I’d rather talk about mental illness in its broader fashion, and discuss how we act as a people, a church, the body of Christ, loving and caring well for those living with mental illness.

I would like to begin with what some people believe about those with mental illness: a mental diagnosis is not a person’s identity. It is not who a person is. A person’s identity is established in Christ, and he or she was created in the holy and righteous image of God. Having a mental illness is a consequence of the fall of man, of living on this side of heaven, and of the brokenness of this world. The idea that a person’s identity goes beyond their mental illness can be a struggle not only for an outsider, but for the diagnosed as well. It can become so embedded in how people view themselves that it becomes a struggle to let go of mental illness as an identity. There is tension in the idea that this is not who I am, yet it is currently something I have and live with.

There is much discussion over the different ways to treat mental illnesses and in reality; a great deal is still unknown about the brain and similarly about mental illness. The newest updates and research on the brain are soon outdated with new findings. The beginning of a person’s struggles can be caused by multiple or combined factors: organic causes, life circumstances/stressors, drug use, genetics, and more. There is often a misunderstanding about the behaviors of those that have mental illness. For example, not taking medication, isolating, or unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, are many times a sign of their diagnosis. It is not simply a lack of a person’s commitment to their health or an indication of their strength to stay consistent with treatment, but it’s actually a symptom or a clue that a stronger problem is at play. 

There is not a cure for some diagnoses; rather what is offered is treatment and symptom management available through various mental health disciplines.  Some diagnoses are chronic, which require more serious and structured treatment, while others can be managed with psychotherapy. And many diagnoses can at times be helped by medication to regulate brain chemicals that are out of balance. There is not one size fits all solution, thus we must be cautious about treating people without recognizing their individuality.

I do believe God is the ultimate healer, all-powerful and He has the ability to heal anyone, any issue, at any moment. God is also God and I do not know why He intervenes to heal some of disease and not others. We cannot use reason to answer this. To do so would be limiting God, and we do not have authority over him to understand or tell Him what to do. That does not mean we give up hope, nor does it mean we make assumptions as to why someone has a mental illness…Rather we have to learn how to live in the ambiguity of the gray, in the tension of what we may not know or understand, to live in the not yet, and still be a loving community that seeks to walk with one another in and through brokenness.

Church is one of the key communities we have to face where mental illness has been marginalized. God created the church to be his body, with Jesus Christ as its head – to be his hands and feet, loving, serving and coming alongside one another for the good and glory of the other. One step in this direction is as simple as not turning your head away from the issue and being open to those struggling from a humble stance. Taking a posture that does not assume or quickly move to judgment, but one that is open, accepting and compassionate. To offer a blanket statement or response such as, “Just be happy, think positive thoughts,” or “You need to pray more,” is dismissing and minimizing to the person’s experience and heart, not to mention ineffective. It is damaging and I believe unbiblical to blame illness on a lack of faith, or personal sin. The simplistic responses such as, “Trust God,” are important truths and there is a place for such reactions, but other times, many more times, there is more needed and at stake. Some times what people need most, what any person needs, is not for another to fix or to have an answer, but to feel safe and accepted in the presence of another person while being fully known.  

It is important that those in the church and Christian communities to understand their scope of knowledge and abilities in order to provide the most beneficial care. We all need to be aware of how much we know and do not know, and let that inform what it looks like for us to be the most loving and present with someone struggling. Having these boundaries allows us to love the other with increased freedom because we are not taking on more than we are able to help with or hold. It is good to educate yourself on mental illness and on available resources, such as therapists and crisis lines to refer people to. By connecting a person to the appropriate resources (if needed), and/or providing yourself with needed support, you are offering the best care and truly honoring the other person. A body is made up of parts; every part is important, and does not function separately of the others. Thus, we are not a body by ourselves that can help everyone individually. To try to do so could put the one struggling at risk and be harmful. This was not God’s design, and each part is just as important, whether that’s being a friend, therapist, pastor, doctor, etc.

The hope is to cultivate a safe community for those who have a mental illness or any type of brokenness, to be able to live openly, be known, and be provided with support that is not shaming, free from judgment, offers healing and is not discriminating. This kind of support does not mean you are enabling or allowing people to dwell in their diagnosis. It is seeing people through the lens of Jesus and treating them with dignity and honor. 

Spiritual Healing With Mental Illness

This guest blog comes from pastor, author and speaker, Tony Roberts. Tony has a great blog called A Way With Words where he writes about mental health, faith, art, and culture. Recently he wrote a spiritual memoir called Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission about his experience with bipolar disorder as a pastor. We are very excited to have Tony share his thoughts with you! 

While it may be true that some can experience a miraculous cure from mental illness, I haven't. I know precious few who have. Instead, the miracle of healing has come in the form of facing the obstacles that our minds and the world often put in the way. When I was first diagnosed with a serious mental illness, I was told I could never return to my career, that my wife and I would divorce, and that I would spend the rest of my life in and out of mental hospitals. By faith, I have risen above these stereotypical stigmas and enjoyed a rewarding life.

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995, when I was 30 years old. At the time I was serving (as a pastor) at a small but thriving church. Many people added their prayers to my own that I might be cured of the effects of mental illness that prevented me from living a full life.

After taking some time off to get my medication adjusted and make some progress through therapy, I did return to work full-time at the church. While I was not cured (I still took medicine and participated in therapy), I was able to enjoy a relatively stable period of over a dozen years, blessed with growing joy in my family and career.

In time, though, my illness caught up with me. I had moved to an area where I could not find adequate mental health care. I became imbalanced in my work and family life. I allowed my schedule to become disrupted. In an effort to re-establish stability, my psychiatrist tried some medications which aggravated my mental health. In spite of passionate prayers, daily Bible study, weekly worship, and other spiritual disciplines, my life veered off course. Tragically, one night in the spring of 2008, I attempted to take my own life. After receiving treatment, I was advised to go on disability and leave behind a job I had performed for almost two decades.

While Jesus did typically heal with immediate miracles, at least one of his healings took places in stages (Mark 8:23-25). More clearly than this, there is the example of the Apostle Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Over the course of my time serving as a pastor with a mental illness, I have come to view my suffering like the Apostle Paul's. I have prayed countless times that it be removed, but for some reason I don't fully understand God has chosen not to take it away. I have instead been left with the assurance that, in spite of this disability, God's “grace is sufficient for me.”

Prayer and other spiritual disciplines have been invaluable for coping with, and even experiencing a measure of healing from, my illness. Not only was I able to serve in pastoral ministry (and now volunteer as a faithful member) but I have written a spiritual memoir -- Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission -- and offer hopeful encouragement among those, like me, facing mental illness as well as advocate for folks with troubled minds within the faith community.

Jesus is our ultimate healer -- whether we have physical, spiritual or mental illnesses. This may not mean our illness is magically removed, but with better understanding, careful treatment, and commitment to prayer, we receive a degree of healing and recovery such that, by the grace of God we can live more enriching and abundant lives than we ever thought possible.