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Do y’all remember that anecdote I told you about Marf and Bebo and the van? There was a special reason why Marf was so happy that night of the revival. You see, she had been delivered of a demon of depression, and was finally happy again.

Well, for a little while. And this night sure wasn’t the first time she’d ever said something like that as she walked out of the building. Marf got delivered of this exact same demon about once every revival. It kept coming back after a few days to oppress her. She’d have this massive cathartic breakthrough during an altar call or revival every few months, and she’d be fine again–for a little while.

None of us ever asked why our god seemed so ineffective, and certainly none of us questioned that she was suffering from demonic oppression and not a simple mental illness. And worst of all, none of us even suggested she see a specialist to help her once and for all. Psychiatry (I’ll be using this generic term as a catch-all for all forms of mental and cognitive therapies) was antithetical to Christianity as we understood it. That was not only a given to us but obvious. Nobody went to a therapist–who knew what would happen if we trusted our souls to a (GASP) therapist?

Indeed, especially among us young people in the church, psychiatry was one of our worst enemies. A young friend of mine, Big David, who I’ve mentioned before here, had actually gotten kidnapped at his parents’ behest by religious deprogrammers associated with a psychiatric and substance-abuse hospital, Spring Shadows Glen, which later got in an awful lot of trouble for doing this sort of thing and worse to unwilling participants. David had come out of this experience only stronger for Jesus, but many other people we heard about fell to whatever it was that was happening to them in their enforced treatment. Psychiatry had the power to eradicate faith somehow.

It isn’t hard to find very conflicting opinions regarding treatment today. For every sane and even-handed assessment of the field, there are dozens more that, well, aren’t. Some cloak themselves in perfectly reasonable-looking draperies that are in actuality bizarre.

Did I mention that I majored in psychology (and history, yay me for choosing two of the most useless majors possible for my future life!) in college and had half-formed plans to go on to graduate school for a clinical doctorate? When I began to think about my church’s antipathy toward the field I’d semi-chosen as my professional aspiration, I began to really question its stance, which made me question a lot of its other stances.

I don’t know why Christianity–especially evangelical Christianity–is so distrustful of psychiatry. I don’t know when it happened, either, just that it had to be pretty early on in the field’s nascence. This distrust has its roots sunk deep in the minds of the rank-and-file members of these churches. People who wouldn’t even imagine just trying to pray away a broken bone or an impacted wisdom tooth refuse to get treatment and help for their various mental and emotional disorders.

Even more heartbreakingly, troubled couples who routinely visit physicians whose religious affiliation they don’t even know or care to know, who routinely let people file their taxes, care for their children’s medical needs and teeth, who let secular people do every other thing for the family’s physical needs, will still refuse to visit therapists who are actually qualified to help them, insisting instead of “Christian therapy”–which is worth about what you think it is given the adjective tacked on there, which is to say practically less than the paper the “license” is printed on (“Christian movies” are awful; “Christian music” makes most people want to throw their MP3 players across the room; “Christian art” tends toward the trite and hackneyed–why would “Christian therapy” be anything but a very pale imitation of the real thing either?).

This happened to me, actually–when Biff realized that our marriage was on the rocks, he demanded we see a pastor at the military base where he was serving. I refused; I knew what that was going to look like, and didn’t trust the qualifications of this person as a mental-health professional. He was an evangelical chaplain who clearly sympathized with Biff and he was not a therapist, so I didn’t expect him to be impartial or competent.

Later, just before I fled, I did talk to this “Christian counselor” Biff had wanted us to consult, and it turns out I was right to distrust Biff’s suggestions; the counselor went straight to Biff to reveal every single thing I’d told him in confidence after I saw him, and Biff immediately began to threaten me to terrorize me into staying in the marriage. It’s no surprise that ex-Christian spouses are very reluctant to see “Christian counselors” and “Christian marriage therapists;” the few of us who can be talked into attending one come out of it feeling demonized and chastised.

But it’s very hard to tell a Christian locked in the illusion that the “therapist” he or she trusts so much isn’t actually that trustworthy. In the rush to sanitize real therapy, Christians rush to fill the void with these so-called “Christian therapists.” It’s like a therapist, only Christian, they think! But that’s not true. Nobody even wonders just what qualifications these people have or how much schooling they’ve had. It’d be a useful thing to wonder about, considering how often we hear about Christian therapy students who land in trouble for refusing to treat gay people.

Meanwhile, half of all evangelicals believe that mental illness can be cured with prayer. It’s worth noticing, I think, that the older the evangelical, the less likely he or she is to believe such poppycock. But younger ones–the voice of the future of evangelicalism, the ones most likely to be loud and vocal about their religion to outsiders, the ones picking up the next round of openings in ministry and apologetics–these are the ones who don’t realize yet how absolutely ridiculous and demonstrably untrue their position is.

But why?

Could it be that mental illness isn’t obvious to the naked eye, so seems like a better prospect for prayer to fix it? There’s no limb to regrow, after all, no blindness to fix, no missing digits to regenerate. And it is very difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and “the still small voice” of the “Lord”–I once had a dread-filled premonition about an elevator and didn’t take it; it fell three floors right then and there, and I thought angels had been talking to me or guiding me somehow. I didn’t even consider that I usually got anxious around working in that building because I didn’t like the job and it stressed me out to an unholy extent. Nope, it was angels!

Could it be that short-term emotional catharsis is so powerful that it’s easy for someone suffering a mental illness to believe that he or she is cured, for at least a little while? I saw this any number of times, both in myself and in others–it wasn’t at all uncommon for people around me to talk about feeling depressed or hugely anxious, and I myself suffered from anxiety attacks all the time. But after a “breakthrough,” that stuff would be overwhelmed by a sheer emotional outpouring.

English: mechanical ventilaror
English: mechanical ventilaror (Photo credit: Wikipedia). The person in this bed is not a weakling for needing a ventilator.

Could it be a deep distrust on the part of Christians of the entire concept of insurmountable emotional problems? There’s a huge self-reliant streak among evangelicals especially; anti-vaxxers tend toward the religious end of the scale, we see over and over again, and needing emotional help of any kind is seen as weak. Especially now that the Jesus Party (er, the GOP) is trying to convince people that health insurance–and even health care itself is bad and evil, when the Jesus Party (er, the GOP) is trying its level best to gut mental health care, it’s easy to think that the Christians behind these efforts and leading our nation think of mental-health care as extraneous and optional rather than absolutely necessary to prevent misery.

Could it be that because normal, effective therapy focuses not on sin, demons, and a deity that it is seen as deeply suspicious? The reason it doesn’t focus on those things is because those things haven’t been demonstrated to help the people suffering from mental illnesses and setbacks. A bipolar person doesn’t need to worry about demons–what is needed is medication. A person suffering from anxiety doesn’t need to focus on prayer and demons, but upon the cognitive techniques and skills needed to better handle fear and stress. I’ve noticed more than a few times that evangelicals especially have a tough time when every single thing in their field of view isn’t completely Jesus-fied, so this last thing might well be the crux of the problem that so many Christians have with psychiatry: it makes their entire religion superfluous.

I’m going to make some guesses here, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of fear at work in the rejection of competent therapy. Psychiatry has certain methods of therapy that work. Real therapists don’t just tell people to pray a lot more and everything will be fine. They don’t even focus on sin or on humans being intrinsically broken or in need of divine aid. They don’t even care about the supernatural. Medications, too, don’t care what religion someone is; they work even if “demons” are present. Someone said on a private discussion forum the other day that he’d been deeply involved in the 9/11 conspiracy delusion right up until he got onto anti-psychotic medication, and once he got his condition diagnosed and treated, his obsession with 9/11 just melted away like mist in the morning light. No demons were there, just a simple chemical imbalance that had made him fixate on 9/11.

That’s the kind of anecdote that would–and really, should–scare the pants off a zealot. What if their entire faith system is built upon nothing more than a similar mental derangement that can be easily cured? What would that say about the more intense brands and flavors of Christianity? What would it say about the zealots we endure today who torment their families and society alike with constant attempts to proselytize and enshrine their religious ideas into tyrannical law?

If someone’s faith is solid, then a secular therapist shouldn’t be able to do anything to rattle that faith any more than a dentist could, and for the same reasons. But it just breaks my heart to see so many Christians denying their emotional pain and refusing to get adequate and effective care for their illnesses and disorders because they’d rather pray. That works about as well for clinical depression as it does for a toothache–which is to say, not at all.

By the way, when I finally left the religion, I ended up with a truly nasty case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the things that had happened to me. Prayer hadn’t helped my anxiety at all, nor taught me how to manage stress and fear. You know what did actually get me out of that hole? Cognitive behavioral therapy, anger management classes, and some mild medication while I got evened out. That was about ten years ago, but I haven’t had a major panic attack since the day I got over my fear of psychiatry and got myself the care I’d needed for so long.

If you are suffering, whether you’re religious or not, please, please, please seek the help you need. It’s out there, despite everything the Republican Party is trying to do. If you have no idea where to start, call a 24-hour hotline (I called a domestic abuse hotline because it was the only thing open at two in the morning); the counselors there have all kinds of resources to link you up with. Even if you have no money whatsoever or any health insurance yet, there’s something out there. It’s okay to seek help. You are not alone in this; there are all kinds of people out there who want to help. There’s no reason to suffer.

And there’s no reason to drag a disbelieving partner to a therapist who makes belief the entire foundation for his or her therapy technique. That’s just cruel, and it isn’t going to work because the non-believing spouse just doesn’t agree to that foundation. Communication and respect work about the same way for Christian couples as they do for non-Christian couples, so it’s especially sad to see troubled couples hung up here.

I just realized something: it’s not necessary to drag Jesus into therapy. It never was. Religion is next to irrelevant when it comes to becoming healthier mentally and emotionally (if anything it might just make one’s mental/emotional health worse). And that may well be the entire problem Christians have with it. It’s another facet to the “cruel dilemma”–forcing Christians to choose between a so-called “Christian therapist” and therapy that actually works regardless of what religion someone follows.

Whatever religion you pursue or don’t pursue, though, if you need help, please find it. You are not alone. And it’s okay to seek help.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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