Study finds church congregations blind to mental illness

Mental illness of a family member destroys the family's connection with the religious community, a new study by Baylor University psychologists has found, leading many affected families to leave the church and their faith behind.

The study shows that while families with a member who has mental illness have less involvement in faith practices, they would like their congregation to provide assistance with those issues. However, the rest of the church community seemed to overlook their need entirely. In fact, the study found that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.

"The difference in response is staggering, especially given the picture of distress painted by the data: families with mental illness reported twice as many problems and tended to ask for assistance with more immediate or crisis needs compared to other families," said study co-author Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and at Baylor, who is an expert in mental illness and the church. "The data give the impression that mental illness, while prevalent within a congregation, is also nearly invisible."

The study appears on-line in the journal , Religion and Culture, and is the first study to look at how mental illness of a family member influences an individual's relationship with the church.

The Baylor researchers surveyed nearly 6,000 participants in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations about their family's stresses, strengths, faith practices and desires for assistance from the congregation. The results showed mental illness in 27 percent of families, with those families reporting double the number of , such as financial strain and problems balancing work and family. Families with mental illness also scored lower on measures of family strength and faith practices, and analysis of desires for assistance found that help with mental illness was a priority for those families affected by it, but virtually ignored by others in the congregation.

"Families with mental illness stand to benefit from their involvement within a congregation, but our findings suggest that faith communities fail to adequately engage these families because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help," said study co-author Dr. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor's School of Social Work. " is not only prevalent in church communities, but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed. Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families."

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Jun 22, 2011
Realistically, the study should have been more in depth. They are drawing conclusions from only 2 pieces of data, and it doesn't appear that they fully vetted the connections that they hypothesized.

I see a few plausible scenarios

- Those with mental illness in the family are afraid of shame or being ostracized.
- Those with mental illness in the family tend to be less religious due to unrelated factors arising from contributing to the mental illness.
- Religious people may look down on mental illness as a product of sin.
- Mental illness may be priority one for a family dealing with it, but it may be that the occurrence of major mental illness is small relative to the number of occurrence of other needs.

and I'm sure that there are many more possible explanations. I believe that the study opens up an interesting situation, but it is far too early to draw unsubstantiated conclusions.

Jun 22, 2011
Well, of course, 'mental illness' is really only possession by evil spirits, and you cant burn satan out of people any more now can you? At least not in 'civilized' lands...

Few religions are equipped to deal with possession in more 'conventional' ways, although santeria and of course the catholic church do come to mind.

Tolerance of mental illness by superstitious people who are already exhibiting deficits of their own must be especially uncomfortable and difficult I imagine. Is speaking in tongues sane or what? I dont know. But I have opinions.

Jun 22, 2011
What do you think?

"Science validates faith." Says the holy babbler.

Jun 22, 2011
"When the holy spirit is interceding for us, we are out of control." Says the blessed mumbler.

I can do this too. Blahblabbityblahblahblah Meckaleckahai mecka heiniho.

-But I cannot do it with all the earnestness that a tonguespeaker can. Why not? Because the spirit of god is not within me? Or because the spirit of shecky green is? No, because I know that there are no such things as spirits.

And I recognize the overwhelming power in many many people, of the compulsion to pretend. Is this mental illness I ask you? Is it??

Jun 22, 2011
I would tend to agree with your sentiments in many of those situations, but to be scientifically fair, we would want to study whether specific prejudices are the sole cause of this discrepancy, or whether there is another mechanism that produces the majority of this effect.

Jun 22, 2011
Indeed. Well, as the major religions are all based on the 'chosen people' concept, which is undeniably prejudicial in nature, and which enables Religionists to parse out the people of the world based upon whether or not they accept the one true path to gods heart, then I would investigate similarities with paranoid schizophrenia to begin with.

Our brains are oversized, damage-prone, and energy-hungry. As such they accumulate defects quickly. This explains the wide range of acumen not found among wild species. It would stand to reason that people who tend to share similar defects would aggregate for comisseration and group denial, under the banner of a credo of some sort.

If a whole churchfull of people is hallucinating then the visions would take on a legitimacy of sorts, yes?

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