Prayer not cutting it? How about trying something else

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
April 2013. I was an ickle first-year, adrift in the big wide world of university assignments, keg stands, noisy lecture theatres, goon bags and overenthusiastic health science students.

To cut a long story short, the combination of university stress, a genetic predisposition to mental illness, insomnia, major life changes and the ever-persistent existential question of what I was doing with my life propelled me into depression and generalised anxiety disorder.

Yet when I finally admitted this to my well-meaning parents, they insisted that my issues were due to me being apart from the church. I was discouraged from taking the medication I needed, and from seeing any secular counsellors or doctors even though I wasn't eating, I was hearing voices, and I woke up crying every morning.

My dear mother even flew down to visit. Needless to say, her remedy was to drag me to church, where, ironically, the many inquiries from strangers brought on another panic attack.

The church is often painted as a safe haven for sufferers. For many however, it is not a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness. According to a recent LifeWay Research study, about half of evangelical Christians believe prayer and bible study alone can heal mental illness. Even more horrifically, many people believe mental illness is the direct result of a person's sin. We need to overcome the evangelical idea that demons, malicious spirits, sin, or separation from the church are causing mental illness, and can be prayed away.

My brother John did not receive the medical care he needed. He suffered from depression, anxiety, paranoia and the onset of schizophrenia, yet he received no medical support, counselling or really any intervention outside of prayer and regular church services. He was hearing voices, had stopped eating, didn't recognise family members and was essentially catatonic in his final days, yet nothing was actually done.

All the prayers in the world, all the bible verses, the laying of hands and well-meaning reassurances could not cure the chemical imbalances in my brother's brain.

I'm not trying to antagonise anyone or insult anyone's faith, but let me be clear: if you think someone you know is struggling, offer them real, material help. Suggest counselling or medication, tell them you'll support them and be with them every step of the way. And, if you like, pray for them. But do not substitute prayer for actual medical assistance, psychiatric evaluation or counselling.

If someone you know broke their leg, you wouldn't just pray it away, would you? You'd get them to a hospital, and you'd trust that the doctors and nurses could heal your loved one. I don't really believe in God, but if I did, I'd argue that God is capable of working through doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and counsellors.

So, for my brother's sake, for everyone who is struggling with some sort of mental health issue, by all means pray your heart out. But do not ignore the actual, scientifically-backed methods of care and rehabilitation. Prayer, scripture and medication and/or counselling are neither enemies, nor are they mutually exclusive. Scriptural authority is not challenged by the efficacy of medical science.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.

Comments

Well spoken. To which I would add avoid 'woo woo'. WW is meditation, mindfulness, the New Age panoply, fine in itself, but not efficacious in clinical mental illness.

'Critic' was quite wonderful in the '07. But, one wouldn't need to be an anxious reader. Headline: "Mature Students ~ We Know Who You Are. You Know Who You Are". Then followed behavioural demands: 'Shut up knowing everything in lectures! Will you shut up?'