Reading this interview in Christianity Today with Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention whose daughter committed suicide, was a rather harrowing experience. It was harrowing firstly because he’s trying to analyze his daughter’s untimely death, and that is necessarily going to make for uncomfortable reading. But it was harrowing also because it further convinced me of an insurmountable impasse between Southern Baptist-style Evangelical Christianity and proper mental health awareness.
You can discern how this man struggles to comport compassion and non-judgement for his daughter’s fatality with holding true to his theological commitments. But unfortunately, I don’t think it’s actually possible to do this, for several reasons.
If a tenet of your theological convictions is that the Devil truly does walk the earth, luring God’s children into sin, and sinful behavior leads one down a path of destruction, then it makes perfect sense to suppose that a person struggling with mental illness is afflicted with the symptoms of engagement in sinful behavior. Because had he or she engaged in perfectly righteous behavior, he or she would have avoided such afflictions.
To put it another way: I don’t understand how a Southern Baptist who believes that the “Evil One” (as John Page puts it) actively ravages civilization can adequately grapple with the reality of mental illness, if looming ever-present over their analysis is the threat of Satanic infiltration. How is this person supposed to distinguish depression arising as a result of some neuro-chemical condition from depression arising as a result of Satan’s hand? It doesn’t seem possible. Even John Page, who (laudably) is attempting to spread greater awareness of mental illness within his cultural cohort, does not appear willing to say: “mental illness can come about due to factors outside a person’s direct control. Prayer alone is insufficient to remedy the harms associated with these illnesses.” He does rebuke a number of vaguely-outlined platitudes which he says are “sometimes stated in Christian circles” — such as ‘depression equals weakness’ and the like — and that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t address whether mental illness can be reduced to Satanic intervention in the material realm.
Because if you believe in the truth of Satanic intervention in the material realm, why wouldn’t Satan work his dark magic by afflicting sinners with depression, anxiety, stress, delusions, and so forth? It’s a coherent belief. What’s not especially coherent is believing that some mental illnesses arise totally outside the bounds of Satan’s province, while others are the straight-forward product of his deeds. How would you tell the difference?
I think most people who’ve lost a loved one to death by suicide would like to believe that Satan hadn’t triumphed, and that some other cause was proximate to the tragedy. So they carve out an exception for their loved one, while retaining the belief that mental illness in general is explicable by reference to Satan. This just doesn’t jive, in my view. It’s one or the other. You’ll notice that Page doesn’t quite answer the interviewer’s question about the ultimate fate of those who take their own lives. “I believe one’s eternal destination is dependent upon one’s relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says.
This discussion raises another question: what about more conventional physical illnesses? Is someone who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease a victim of Satan, per this theological framework? I doubt most Southern Baptists would say so. But I also doubt they would view depression as categorically alike to Parkinson’s disease. Which explains why depression can be attributed to the work of Satan, while Parkinson’s disease cannot.
Stepping outside this framework, it’s a basic truism that “mental illness” and “physical illness” have no meaningful distinction from the standpoint that everything exists in the material realm, and therefore every ailment one might find oneself struggling with is the product of material causes. Everything you experience came about because some atom moved in some particular direction. These atoms might be moving in your brain or your pancreas, but they’re all moving in the material realm, so the idea that we should draw a bright line between “mental” and “physical” illness makes absolutely no sense, because your mental states are the product of your physical states. Your brain is a physical object that gives rise to consciousness, and within consciousness you experience angst, shame, stress, and every other sensation that might coagulate into “mental illness.”
But I don’t think any Southern Baptist Convention adherent can ever accept what I just articulated in the previous paragraph if they are to hold fast to their doctrines. Therefore, notwithstanding some marginal advancements in empathy and rejection of certain platitudes, I don’t think they can ever come to a truly compassionate reckoning with mental illness. Consequently, many in their flock will continue to suffer, at least until they rid themselves of this belief system, which by its very nature conflates mental illness with sin.
Southern Baptists are never going to reject belief in the immaterial soul, and I think that belief stands starkly in the way of achieving real understanding of how mental illness operates.
There’s now mounting evidence that psilocybin mushrooms and (Buddhism-derived) meditation can seriously alleviate depression. Will the Southern Baptist Convention ever embrace these harm mitigation strategies? Probably not, because both these methods would have the likely effect of lessening one’s commitment to the doctrines of salvation through Christ. I guess the overarching point is that, when your paramount devotion is to propounding Jesus’ mandates for achieving eternal life, rather than to examining the material world as it actually exists, that will necessarily close you off to contemplation of crucial strategies for treating mental illness, which require a firm grounding in empiricism. Empiricism contravenes the Southern Baptist Convention framework. The result: more untreated mental illness, more adherents blaming themselves for their misfortunes, and more suffering.