The Ugly Truth about the Church and Mental Illness


I’ve seen quite a few people writing recently about the subject of how churches are dealing with mental illness. They are good philosophical arguments complete with quotes from scripture and testimonials from people who struggle with depression.  But what about those people that are bat-shit crazy?  Then what?

I have always found it trite and academic when people in church debate Calvin’s theology of predestination.  I was introduced to this theological point in Sunday school, during my senior year of high school.  The idea is that God chooses some people to go to Heaven and others are simply created for destruction and eternal damnation.  I could give you my theological/philosophical argument as to why I think that is incorrect, but I’d rather not.  I’d rather you see it through my lens instead.

It’s easy to say you believe in predestination when your life is comfortable.  It’s easy to ask those questions if your brother you grew up with wasn’t a schizo-affective disordered sociopath and believed by many to be destined for hell.  It’s not difficult to believe in God’s creating and subsequently choosing certain people to hate, when its not your brother yelling commands to his demon army in the backyard at two in the morning.  It’s easy to say yes, God chooses some to send to hell for absolutely no reason–just because.

It’s also enjoyable to debate Nature vs. Nurture, unless you’ve wrestled with understanding that line your whole life.  How much is he really responsible for?  And can I love him even if he’s responsible for all of it?

I’d like to take you through my personal experiences as a siblings of someone diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder (that’s basically bi-polar and schizophrenia rolled into one) and as a sociopath, and what the church’s role was in our lives.

Jeremy was a sweet, pretty much perfect baby.  He had curly golden locks, and big animated blue eyes.  Life was good.  Then, he began to talk.  One of his first phrases was to call us, his siblings, “Dodo birds.”  Not only did we realize that he was calling us names, we had no idea where he’d gotten that name.  We looked it up and thought how strange it was that he was calling us extinct birds.  How did he know about Dodo birds when we had never even heard of them?  From there, the phrases progressed to “I hate you,” “everybody hates me,” “I’m going to kill you,” and “No one loves me, I’m gonna kill myself.”  Writing this, I realize how odd it is for a child to say these things, but Mom said similar things at times, and we were all used to Jeremy’s dramatic nature, so didn’t think much of it.

By five, he’d already attempted to throw himself from a moving vehicle onto the highway (multiple times), tried to kill me with a knife, and when I talked him down, he turned it on himself before I wrangled it from him.  Trying to strangle people was also regular occurrence, although I’m not sure if I can attribute that solely to Jeremy since I remember Mom doing that several times to me and we kids doing it to each other when we were angry.

Jeremy has never admitted to feeling guilty about anything, and I remember well, his satisfied smile at witnessing the pain of others.  We knew early on that he had the uncanny ability to read people, but he only saw the negative.  He was incredibly smart, but never understood most humor but especially, sarcasm. For him, sarcasm seemed a way for people to say the negative things to him and get away with it.  Half the time, he was probably right.

It was around his sixth or seventh birthday that Mom found a crack-pot “Christian” child psychologist to evaluate Jeremy.  Her first diagnoses were “sociopath,” “ADD” and “bipolar.”  (It is not common nor recommended practice for anyone under 18 years of age to be diagnosed with the labels bipolar or sociopath). Her major caveat though, was a big one; it was most likely “demon possession.”  So, I was ushered from the room to take care of my siblings in the waiting room, while the psychologist prayed over (exorcised) Jeremy.

After the session, Mom attested to the fact that Jeremy became angry and agitated while the woman was praying for him.  She failed to mention until much later that the woman was holding him down on the floor while they prayed the demons out of him.  Her final diagnosis?  “There’s not much I can do for him.”  At this point, I’ve not made it hard to tell that I find this ridiculous.  Do I believe that people can be demon-possessed?  In theory, yes.  However, the Fundamentalist culture in which I was raised (ATI, etc…) was always far too quick to dismiss mental illness as a spiritual problem.  That being said, I’ll continue.

At one point, my parents took Jeremy to a pastor in the Gothard inner circle who deemed Jeremy the worst type of fool: the “Steadfast Fool.”  Again, the idea being, nothing could be done for him; he will go straight to hell if he doesn’t change his ways.  No one considered the fact that maybe there was something terribly broken in his brain.

At some point, my parents sent Jeremy to live on a farm in Waycross, GA for troubled teens.  He did pretty well there, because the one thing that showed Jeremy’s humanness was animals.  He truly cared for them and did well taking care of them.  He also learned the finer points of growing pot, what it feels like to be shot at close-range with a BB gun to the stomach, and how to make a tasty squirrel stew.

We went to visit him once as a family.  Things were going well…until we turned off the lights to go to bed.  I was thinking that maybe he really was changing for the better, when out of the darkness, he grabbed my arm and started shouting at me calling me a “fucking bitch,” etc.  Nope, I guess I was wrong.  Still crazy.  Our relationship was another complicated piece of the puzzle that added an extra dynamic to the insanity, but I will leave it out for right now.

After the farm, Jeremy began a go-to-jail, come-home, go-back to jail, cycle.  I think he was about 15 the first time he went to Juvenile Hall, but to be honest, my timeline is a bit hazy since there was so much other ongoing drama.  I also don’t remember what it was that landed him there the first time, but I do remember the relief we felt.  For the first time, I didn’t have to worry about him going crazy and killing us all in our sleep.

Once old enough, he went to jail mostly on assault and possession charges.  Each time he returned home from wherever he was living, he had a different accent and varied vocabulary.  After the farm, he had a thick hick accent and after a long stint in jail, he fused it with Ebonics which was an odd and interesting combination.  He still speaks with a lesser hybrid of both.

Up to this point, can you see the role that the church has taken? That’s right.  It’s non-existent— unless you count the shoddy exorcism attempts (which were not even connected to our churches).  It is easy to avoid people that are messed up, weird, different.  Jeremy is twenty-six, his brilliant mind is gone from years of heavy drug-use, his body is like that of a 70 year-old man, and he spends most of his time smoking and talking about his how he is “the Beast” prophesied about in Revelations. So what has the church done for him?  Well, in a few of his more lucid moments, he says that he believes that God cannot love him or forgive him, and that his soul belongs to Satan (because he sold it to him in exchange for taking his sadness and anger from him).  Jeremy still believes that no one loves him and that he is, in fact, likely to die and go straight to hell.

Most of my family takes no pity on him because they can only see the damage he’s done to himself and our family.  They think that every stupid thing he’s done is his choice.  And that’s the hardest part: loving someone with such severe mental problems and trying to sort out what was a choice and what wasn’t.  Has he made bad choices?  Certainly.  Was he born with a problem?  Definitely.  Was there ever any help for him?  I don’t know.  But I do know this: he’s a human being who stills needs hope and love to thrive.  It’s easy to hate him, to hold back compassion from him.  My bones still remind me of our tumultuous relationship each time I sit in certain chairs or whenever a storm front is coming.  The problem is, I love him and I’ve seen his humanness.  I’ve seen the way he cares for animals.  I know that he loves animals because they don’t judge him and they accept him for who he is: broken and crazy. I’ve seen the light of hope in his eyes when he decides to garden and make things beautiful.  I’ve seen his sadness at thinking that he is unloved.

Jesus loved crazy (demon-possessed) people.  They didn’t bring themselves to be healed—their families brought them or the family had already given up on them—and half the time, the crazy people came just to mock Jesus.  But Jesus always had compassion on them.  Aren’t the crazy ones “the least of these” that we are told to love and care for?  Is it hard and sometimes on the verge of impossible?  Yes.

I hold no animosity toward the church, and I don’t blame the church for wanting to hide its face from the ugliness that is mental illness.  Many people within the church are unequipped to handle mental illness, and that’s okay.  What’s not okay is ignoring the reality of mental illness and saying that it’s definitively a spiritual problem when it’s not.

So this week, as I’m trying to convince my dad that Jeremy needs to live in a personal care facility, it’s not because I hate Jeremy.  It’s because I love him and I have hope that at some point in his life, he may be able to feel love.


  1. Bless you, and thanks.

    Love takes more courage most of the time than we can muster.

  2. I want to write words of encouragement, love, and hope, but my vocabulary is failing me. My heart aches for Jeremy and others like him.

  3. As a fellow sister of someone with a mental illness, this is both refreshing and excruciating. My brother is not as “lost” as yours, but every time I speak to him I can feel the brokenness and fear wash over me (even in his best moments). Thank you for your bravery to share Jeremy’s story. I want so badly for us all (the Church) to figure out how to love the way Christ did.

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