“I Realized God Wasn’t Punishing Me”: Talking About Mental Illness in Churches


sun in hands

Joanne Kelly was in church one Sunday when her minister announced during his sermon: “If you are diligent enough in your spiritual practice, you don’t need psychotropic medications.”

Kelly, who has an adult son with a mental illness, was happy that her son had skipped church that day. She confronted the minister after the service.

“What you said was extremely irresponsible,” she scolded.

Getting within an inch of her face and clearly angry, he replied, “When I give a sermon, I am channeling God.”

Joanne never returned to that church. She found a new one. She also got involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, serving as the president of both her local Boulder chapter and the state NAMI group. Then she went a step further. Joanne  joined the Rev. Alan Johnson in forming the Interfaith Network on Mental illness. One of its goals is to educate the clergy about mental illnesses.

Joanne told me last weekend that when families find themselves in a mental health crisis for the first time, a large percentage of them first seek help from a minister. Sadly, many preachers either are misinformed or misguided when it comes to offering advice about serious mental illnesses.

Joanne and Alan invited me to speak at the Colorado University Law School in Boulder, where we had such a large crowd in the 250 seat auditorium that about 70 attendees had to sit in a spill over room and watch on television. After my speech, three local officials talked about mental health services in Boulder. The next morning, I spoke at two services at the First Congregational Church where Alan’s wife, Martie McMane, is the senior pastor.

Both of the church services focused on mental illness, beginning with an exceptional children’s sermon delivered by the Rev. Jason Hays, who talked about his struggles with depression. It was invigorating to participate in a religious service were mental illness was spoken about openly. This was only the second time that a religious based group has invited me to speak. (Jewish Family Services was the first to invite me to talk about the criminalization of persons with mental disorders.)

How faith based groups address — or don’t address — mental illness has been in the news recently because of the suicide of California megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, age 27. The Rev. Warren is the author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and The Washington Post published several stories about how Matthew Warren’s suicide has sparked a national conversation among church leaders over whether their beliefs stigmatize those with mental illness.

One such stigmatizing belief is that mental illness is a symptom of spiritual weakness. Some denominations teach that all diseases, sickness and pain is rooted in a world broken by sin. But mental illness — in particular depression —  often is singled out as a sign of moral weakness. Catholicism and Judaism also teach that suicide is immoral.

Although INMI is currently in its infant stages,  it has held several conferences and has created a website that offers links to “thought provoking and action oriented resources” about mental illness aimed at pastors and their congregations.

I don’t generally “preach” at a Sunday church service, but I was thrilled to have that opportunity in Boulder and I left excited about INMI’s work and the leadership displayed by the Revs. Martie McMane and Jason Hays. After the service, several parishioners spoke to me privately, many with tears in their eyes, about their personal struggles with a mental illness or those of their loved ones.

“I felt a great deal of shame until Martie (Rev. McMane) began talking about mental illness in our church,” one member said. “After that, I realized God wasn’t punishing me.”

I have written about the need to fight stigma. Our churches should be at the forefront of that battle.

Please comment. Tell me how your minister handles questions about mental illness. Has your church been involved in helping you with a mental health issue?

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. lpogliano says

    keep jesus magic out of our medicine. should be rule #1 in psychiatry medicine.

  2. Too often, religious leaders fill their flocks with very hurtful advice. If you are sick…see a doctor, not a minister

  3. Anonymous says

    I attend a liberal church where damnation of any kind just isn’t on the table. Still, though spiritual crises, addictions, physical ailments, and hard economic times are all mentioned as things we get through together, mental illness is still a hushed topic. Spiritual practice is supposed to bring you closer to God or the what-have-you, and with that should come a measure of peace and joy — an emotional response. It can be hard to square that with the fact that some people’s joymakers are just broken.

  4. Our church is the site for our local NAMI Kokomo (Indiana) meetings twice a month. The people were cautious about having the meetings there in the beginning and even more cautious as people from the group began to come to the church service and eventually joined the church. But through the ministry and witness of our past and current ministers, my fellow parishioners have learned that people with mental illness are just people who face a major illness, one that they may not understand but that they can pray about. My current minister is so awesome as she ministers to me in times of need with my illness and educates those in my church by her acceptance of my illness as well as those in my group. I am so blessed by my church and the fact that my illness doesn’t have to be hidden and a source of shame for me.

  5. Church of Scientology misses this point again and again..Also we have a chrisitian church organization from one of largest ministries in San Diego who also had a staff member saying the mentally ill do not need meds,,they take them away in their retreat program to heal others from tradgedies of life. I was shocked..they have since corrected the problem, in part, by not getting involved with medication interference, by rejecting the mentally ill, realizing they are not ept to handle these matters..oh well better than to take the meds away.. Happy to hear more people are joining together to fight this problem such as Joanne as others… Praise God!

  6. Whenwilltheyeverlearn says

    I have found that stigma is alive and well in all social institutions, including houses of worship, their parishoners, and minsters. I can and do manage my serious mental illness very well. What I can’t do very well, is manage the brutal, crippling acts of stigmatization, that have been weilded against me for many long years since my childhood illness. I can change my outlook, and muster compassion for the cruel and ignorant, but it doesn;t lessen the personal injury. The fearful, loathesome attitude toward the mentally ill called stigma

    is a condition that every human heart is susceptible to. Even ministers, doctors, lawyers, etc. I work hard everyday to love and forgive.

    Clergy who claim God as their master should be the first to understand, advocate, teach about and embrace victims of mental illness, before they become victims again of a stigma that promises to rob them of every dignity of life.

    God bless you, Pete.

  7. 3ninos2woofs says

    I asked that “those suffering from the effects of mental illness and addiction” be included in the Prayer of the People each week– the point at which individuals needing prayers are personally named– so that *all* members of the congregation could be included in prayer, even when confidentiality was desired. My pastor happily honored my request, so now every week I feel that my son (who has bipolar disorder) is receiving prayers by all members of the congregation, not just his dad an me. My pastor blessed us and others who are struggling by honoring this simple request.

  8. I think we all need to find the ” balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul”
    ( from an old gospel spiritual ). no matter our religious or non-religious affiliation, or whether we argue the existence of sin.
    To fear mentioning mental illness, to be socially intimidated for discussing
    it, to speak about it in hushed tones for prideful reasons…to even remind a religious clergy to consider it, is evidence that we bow to stigma.
    Because mental illness greatly affects the human spirit, as well as the mind,mental and emotional capabilities, religiosity of any kind becomes a delicate matter. The best doctrine, ministering, and response from a religious congregation, is love, unconditional and empathetic. They can and should not diagnose, and should not fear and condemn.Ideally, one;s religious habitat should be a place where trust, humility, hope, and compassion rule.
    Because of the tender, vulnerable psyche of the one who is recovering from mental illness, I would advise little religious stimulation until one has regained their sanity enough to make independant choices. A person struggling with mental illness, particularly if they are newly diagnosed, needs to find and re-affirm their own selves,and in effect,
    re-learn how to communicate with themselves. Then, when sane and stronger they may wish to seek out religion(s).
    From a Christian point of view, I don’t understand why its such a foreign notion to ‘love one another, i.e the mentally ill, too, as you would yourself.” But apparently, NAMI has to come and teach it!
    May we all join in and encourage our religious communities in the fight against evil, and the stigma born from it.