Mental Health and Christianity

In certain communities, it is controversial to claim that mental illness exists.

Bartholomeus Anglicus, a 13th-century Christian monk, prescribed music as a potential remedy for people suffering from depression.
Bartholomeus Anglicus, a 13th-century Christian monk, prescribed music as a potential remedy for people suffering from depression.

Some people believe that mental illness is not a real thing and that it — along with psychology — was invented by anti-Christian forces in the last few centuries. Fortunately, a quick look at history dispels the myth that acknowledging mental illness is a recent invention or somehow antithetical to the Christian faith.

Many notable Christians throughout history have struggled with mental illness, including Augustine and Ignatius of Loyola. More contemporary Christians have also written about their personal mental illnesses, such as Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s this idea that mental health and psychology were invented as the result of anti-Christian individuals and forces like Sigmund Freud, Evolutionism, and/or secularism. However, that idea couldn’t be further from the truth: “Long before Freud, philosophers and scholars have addressed the needs of those suffering from mental distress or illness. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Ignatius of Loyola offered many ideas and discussions about people afflicted with mental distress” (source). A recognition of the reality of mental health and psychology dates all the way back to Ancient Greece and the early Christian Church fathers. According to one Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, “The Fathers distinguished between mental illness and demonic possession. Well before the time of Christ, Greek physicians treated people for mental illness. As heirs to this medical tradition, Byzantine physicians did the same. The Church Fathers routinely refer to medical treatment of the insane with no hint of disapproval” (source).

In fact, it was a 13th-century Christian monk — Bartholomeus Anglicus — who first discussed music as a potential remedy for people suffering from “a condition which resembles depression in his encyclopedia, De Proprietatibis Rerum, prescribing music and occupation for depressed patients and sleep and gentle binding for frenzied patients. There is no hint of demonology in his diagnosis” (source).

Connecting mental health with supernatural causes would in fact be considered a demonic and heretical idea by early Christians. That idea came from what is called “The Cult of Asclepius.” In the ancient polytheistic world, Asclepius “was the god of the most widely practiced healing cult” and “Asclepian temples existed throughout ancient Greece and Rome”: “The sick would come to the Asclepian temple, bringing offerings in the form of small images of the affected part. They would sleep in the temple, and healing took place during dreams” (source).

The Cult of Asclepius, advocating for supernatural solutions to mental and other illnesses, existed side by side with both Hippocratic medicine and Christianity. However, it stood in opposition to both of them. The cult believed in supernatural remedies. In contrast,

“Hippocratic medicine [avoided] supernatural interpretations of illness, including mental illness. This avoidance of pagan supernaturalism made Hippocratic medicine congenial to Christians and led to the acceptance of a natural origin of diseases of the body and mind by most early Christian writers… Many Christian writers found Hippocratic medicine congenial to Christian thought because its naturalistic approach focused on care of the body, eschewed the supernatural, and left the care of the soul to other philosophers. The medical authorities cited most frequently by the fathers held that persistent sadness proceeded from a disorder of black bile and that both medicinal and psychological treatments could be used to remedy it… The fathers exhibited not only an awareness of humoral physiology and the connection of the body with mental processes but also an interest in the physical basis of madness” (source).

Thus one of the earliest contributions of Christianity to Western Civilization is the acknowledgment of the reality of mental health and the necessity of compassionate care for those who suffer from mental illness. There was a “widespread (indeed, nearly universal) belief in the ancient world that the sick person bore responsibility for his or her illness.” With the rise of Hippocrates, however, as well as the Christian church, this belief — as well as the Cult of Asclepius — began to be challenged. In contrast to Asclepius, early Christians did not claim “to offer miraculous healing” but rather “established a role, previously unknown in the ancient world, of charitable concern for the sick, which ultimately led to the creation of…the earliest hospitals” (source).

Ironically, then, those today that deny the reality of mental health and psychology actually have more in common with an ancient Greek cult than with Christian tradition.

Fortunately, many contemporary Christians and Christian churches are beginning to wake up to the absolute necessity of seeing mental illness like any other illness.

From Rick Warren’s recent Gathering on Mental Health and the Church, to Baylor University’s Matthew Stanford, to Christianity Today’s Amy Simpson, there are many contemporary Christian leaders and thinkers that are realizing that when Christianity turns a blind eye to mental health issues, much damage is left in the wake.