Mary Coleman: A Christian approach to mental health

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, April 23rd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard. 

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Commentary now from WORLD Radio’s Mary Coleman.

MARY COLEMAN, COMMENTATOR: In the wake of mass shootings in recent months, mental health care has garnered a lot of attention. As someone who found healing from depression after seeing a psychiatrist last year, I am heartened by the conversation taking place in the public square. I also wonder how Christians can engage in the discussion.

On one hand, the Apostle Paul offers wonderful guidance for managing our thought life. In 1st Corinthians he urges us to engage in spiritual warfare and to bring our thoughts into obedience to Christ.

He tells us in Philippians that we should think about what is “true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report.”  I have no doubt these truths can help us overcome anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

But what if scripture is not enough to heal us of mental illness? The mere question may seem like heresy.

I tried for decades to address my depression by using scripture and prayer alone, and both sustained me through my darkest hours. But my healing required something practical too: professional help and medication.

In fact, I made the conscious decision last year to see a psychiatrist who didn’t build his practice around Christianity. I had spent years believing that my mental illness was a failure of faith or a lack of obedience to God.

Last year, however, I realized this shame was just as bad as all of my other negative thoughts.

Turns out, a more clinical approach is just what I needed. My psychiatrist was the first person to help me understand that I am not my brain. My brain is an organ like my kidneys. I am not my kidneys. Our organs are negatively impacted by a variety of things, including genetics, our environment, and our habits. We all understand this.

It may be harder to understand that many factors contribute to mental health disorders too. In my case, my dad—an otherwise very loving father—used nit-picking and sarcasm as motivational tools throughout my life. His intimidation tactics alienated my brothers from him. His explosive anger and impatience contributed to my perfectionism and other compulsions.

Research now suggests that verbal abuse impacts brain development in children, as does childhood trauma. My psychiatrist spent very little time rehashing my past, but his medical lens helped me understand how my negative thought patterns came to be. He also provided practical tools that helped me align my thoughts with the spiritual truths I knew so well.

Mental illness is complicated. We must be careful not to oversimplify it in the name of Christian faith. The national conversation right now affirms that those who suffer from mental illness need professional care. They also need friends and family tuned in to their emotional pain, their anger, or their sense of isolation.

Christians who suffer need these things too. And we have the added blessing of Biblical truth, spiritual weapons, and heavenly hope.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Mary Coleman.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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3 comments on Mary Coleman: A Christian approach to mental health

  1. Mary, GOD BLESS YOU for your courageous transparency regarding your own battle with mental health. I have several family members battling with mental health, including some who are sincere believers in Jesus. As a deacon at our church, I also am aware of many folks in our congregation who are battling with it (not to mention the local homeless population who come to us for help). This is something that is seldom revealed by those who most need the help because of how some of us well meaning brothers and sisters might react (perhaps a justified fear). I am saving your transcription as it will be such an encouragement to Christians who struggle with mental health. I really appreciate the real-life struggles you talk about in your podcasts! I PTL for your life’s calling.

  2. Greetings, brothers and sisters in Christ:

    I am disappointed and troubled that The World and Everything in it let fly Mary Coleman’s “A Christian approach to mental health” on April 23rd. I believe it was detrimental to the cause of Jesus Christ and to the sufficiency of the Word of God to address everything pertaining to life and godliness. WORLD’s mission statement is biblically objective journalism that informs, educates, and inspires. Mary Coleman’s first person story did not reflect biblically objective journalism.

    She wrote such things as she “found healing from depression after seeing a psychiatrist last year,” and “what if scripture is not enough to heal us of mental illness?” She is speaking as if it is settled fact that her “mental illness” is a true medical condition like appendicitis or coronary thrombosis. It is not! With a true medical diagnosis there is an organ or organs of the body that are diseased or not functioning properly. If you ask her you will find that her psychiatrist never did any true medical testing to indicate a malfunctioning brain. That is only a psychiatric theory that bypasses a more God-honoring and more profound biblical explanation.

    She writes “my healing required something practical.” Mary, since when are scripture and prayer not practical? I am not saying that her depression was “a failure of faith or a lack of obedience to God.” But I also believe she had not been counseled by a truly biblical counselor who could have helped her see her heart (her thoughts, desires, and choices) from a biblically helpful and redemptive perspective. I rejoice with her that she has found “healing” (whatever that means) but I think she has settled for less than she could have found from a more profound biblical perspective.

    Of course “I am not my brain” and “I am not my kidneys”, but my brain is not like my kidneys. The truly amazing organ of my brain is where I think, I feel, I want, and choose. Those are all things that the living, active, and sharp Word of God is alone able to address. Is there something organically wrong with Mary’s brain. If she is giving commentary for WORLD, I think not.

    If I am a human who experiences nit-picking, sarcasm, intimidation, impatience, explosive anger and other types of sinful abuse from parents or other significant others, where is my best chance of finding true, life-changing, sanctification-promoting help? For me and my house, we will choose the Word of God. I sincerely hope that Mary has not just settled for feeling better, rather than deep and lasting heart change.

    I would urge WORLD to give an opportunity to someone like the ones I note below to give a gracious, loving, and biblical response to Mary’s commentary. Otherwise you have encouraged your many listeners to settle for the best the world has to offer.
    David Powlison – Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, Westminster Theological Seminary
    Heath Lambert – Association of Certified Biblical Counselors
    Ed Bulkley – International Association of Biblical Counselors
    Robert Jones or Jeremy Pierre – Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
    John Street, Master’s Seminary
    Paul Tripp, Paul Tripp Ministries

    Sincerely in Christ,
    Paul A. Walberg
    Biblical Counseling Ministry
    Toledo, OH

  3. Kris Hart says:

    This is amazing — how wonderful to have these transcripts!!
    I am sharing the insightful George Friedman interview with a couple whose kids are working on Bible translation in western China, and Mary Coleman’s helpful editorial with a few friends. I know I will be sharing pieces many times in the future.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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