19 May 2024

Fellow travellers, not solution-providers: How churches can better approach severe mental illness

Professor Kuruvilla George, a former psychiatrist, is seeking to educate on mental health concerns in church settings. Image: iStock

Kirralee Nicolle

16 April 2023

High-impact mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder still carry a lot of stigma within the church due to biases or a fear of spiritual forces, a Christian mental illness researcher says.

Centre for Theology and Psychology associate director and former deputy chief psychiatrist for the state of Victoria Professor Kuruvilla George said severe mental illnesses including bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia were caused by a range of genetic, biological, psychosocial and spiritual factors. He said in some church environments, those suffering from these conditions were treated as if they were lacking faith or perhaps even possessed by demons.

“These kinds of wrong teaching that have pervaded the church over the years need to be broken down,” Professor George said. While he said prayer and spiritual input were helpful in part, they needed to be paired with psychiatric treatment.

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“They need professional help, they need medication, they need psychotherapy,” he said.

Professor George said while hearing the voice of God may be a common experience in some church settings, there were key differences between those experiencing a psychotic episode and those having a spiritual experience.

“It will show in their life that [the experience] probably has done things for their life, has improved their life,” he said. “Whereas [for] a person with schizophrenia, you’ll see that schizophrenia has impacted them to the point where socially, they will be going down the social ladder. [They will be] unable to cope with the normal things in life, unable to cope with their work and education because of what’s going on in their mind.”

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Professor George said if someone was concerned that someone in their church may be a harm to themselves or others, the first step was to call on professional help. He said the kind of training the Centre for Theology and Psychology sought to offer churches was important for helping to triage a mental health concern. He said by showing acceptance for the person, trust could be built and an offer could then be made to accompany them to an appointment with a specialist.

“There’s very little that the public can do [in these instances],” he said. “The thing is to get the confidence of that person and be able to then refer that person on for an assessment.”

Professor George said when parishioners were going through a difficult time, rather than offers of a solution, they needed someone who would travel alongside them.

“Unfortunately, many of us want to be the solution providers when somebody comes with a problem,” he said. “But we are not solution providers. What we need more in the church is fellow travellers.”

To find out more about the work of the Centre for Theology and Psychology, visit ctp.mst.edu.au. The centre will be hosting a workshop on a Christian perspective of suicide presented by Professor George on 29 April. Visit ctp.mst.edu.au/christian-perspective-on-suicide/ for more information. Professor George is also willing to discuss this topic in a church or smaller group setting, and you can contact him directly at kgeorge@ctp.mst.edu.au.

If you or anyone you know is needing support, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

If someone’s life is in danger, phone Triple Zero (000).

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