Mental health is an issue often badly misunderstood and handled by society – including the Church. So what exactly is going on for someone who hears voices, and how should we respond?

Becky has heard voices that others can’t hear and seen visual hallucinations since she was five years old, and never realised that there was anything unusual about it. Now she also hears the sound of babies crying and sees unusual things such as eyes looking at her through windows. At times she can become ill and distressed, but other times these experiences of psychosis can be comforting and help her creativity. She believes in God and would like to go to church, and has found this helpful in the past. However, she’s currently not going to church because she feels that she is not welcome.

“When I started to exhibit strange behaviour, people who I went to church with would cross the street so they didn’t have to speak to me,” she says. “In another area, at first the vicar there would chat to me quite happily – I wasn’t ill at the time. But then at a coffee morning, he found out I experience psychosis, and from that point on he didn’t talk with me, and he just ignored me. It was quite a shock, he was the last person I expected to do that.”

Of course, churches can also be very supportive. “One of my vicars was very inclusive of everybody,” continues Becky. “But other places are a very select club: if you don’t fit, you’re not encouraged. It’s OK if you behave in the correct way, but if you are really struggling, like some of my friends who don’t wash very often...then people avoid you and don’t support you. People don’t know how to handle it.”

The Last Leprosy

“Mental illness is the last leprosy,” says Jacky Oliver, chief executive of Through the Roof. “Most people with severe mental health problems have experienced a great deal of rejection from society, but what a tragedy if they are also excluded from the love of our Christian communities of faith.”

The exclusion of people who experience severe mental health problems is a vexed question in all parts of society. A survey by the mental health charity Rethink found that nine out of ten people with mental health issues said that discrimination negatively affects their lives, and two thirds have stopped doing something for fear of discrimination. A recent survey of nearly 300 Christians with a mental illness found that 30 per cent had had a negative experience with the Church.

And while many churches may be more inclusive than those Becky experienced, there can be limits to this. “Often when people are ill, they get their basic needs met in a church, but they are not included as well as they might be,” comments Dr Rob Waller, a consultant psychiatrist and one of the directors of Mind and Soul, a Christian organisation that explores mental health and spirituality. “It is good to help them, but do they have friends in the church? Are they encouraged to be part of home groups for example, or to talk about their spirituality? Sometimes churches can be a bit patronising.”

One reason for this is that people can be frightened or don’t understand the unusual behaviour. Mental illness is often only seen in the media in connection with a violent crime. “Often people think schizophrenia means that someone is violent, like the Hollywood portrayal...which is wholly inaccurate,” says Waller. “People with schizophrenia are more likely to have violence acted on them than be violent themselves.”

Discernment and Deliverance

Another controversy is that it is common for people who experience psychosis to be given deliverance ministry – sometimes without their consent. This kind of experience was variously described by people interviewed as ‘horrendous’ or ‘ineffective’. However a collaborative, loving approach to deliverance was described by some as welcome and helpful.

An instant discernment of ‘possession’ may occur because hallucinations and delusions are often religious in nature, and therefore the cause is deemed to be spiritual. However hallucinations and delusions can just be related to what is in a person’s life. “People tend to incorporate whatever is in their world in psychosis, so in a Catholic country they might have delusions about the Virgin Mary,” says Waller. “There has been a decrease in the spiritual content of delusions as this country has become more secular – now they are more likely to be about the CIA or microchips for example. Religious behaviour can become extreme or problematic, but don’t think that this necessarily has anything to say about their faith – in the same way that a delusion about the CIA has anything to say about that organisation.”

Some argue that the immediate laying of hands on someone who is hearing voices is biblical, for example in the Gerasene demoniac story. However others think that people with mental health problems are unfairly targeted. “In the Gospels, Jesus went around casting demons out of a bunch of people, but only a small percentage had symptoms similar to schizophrenia,” says Waller, who attends an evangelical Baptist church, and does believe deliverance is necessary when demonic influence is correctly discerned.

People who carry out deliverance ministry also warn that if someone is ‘exorcised’ when not appropriate, that this can worsen the problem. “People who’ve received the ministry of exorcism inappropriately have wrongly ended up believing themselves possessed by a demon too powerful for Christian ministry,” says Lisle Ryder, a former advisor for deliverance ministry to the Bishop of Worcester. Even Ian Coates at Ellel Ministries, which takes an entirely spiritual approach to mental health problems and regularly uses deliverance, warns: “Hearing voices is not necessarily can be our minds.”

Cause and Effect

Secular understandings of voice hearing and hallucinations vary, and include biological causes, as well as psychological responses to trauma, or misunderstanding the ‘internal voice’. Spiritual understanding also varies, from outright demonic activity to biological and psychological problems that stem from the Fall, but are not demonic. Often delusions and hallucinations can be linked to a person’s past, particularly to traumatic experiences. “Most voices seem to be linked to some kind of bullying or abuse experience,” says Dr Rufus May, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with people experiencing psychosis, and has had such experiences himself. “We need to go gently when talking about them. There might be therapy that can be done around those experiences.” May sees voices as symbolic rather than literal. “Voices might say they are demons but to me anything that is buried, that is how you create the demons.”

This possible link to trauma means Christian counselling could play a role in helping people. However, others warn against solely seeking private counselling work. “It is not something that could manage schizophrenia on its own,” says Waller.

At the same time, professionals argue that churches can play an important role in helping someone recover. Ellel Ministries has seen many people healed through its work. And churches have a lot more to offer than just deliverance ministry. “Try to balance the charismatic, enthusiastic aspect of spirituality with loving interventions, and giving people choice, and listening to them and really hearing where they are at,” says May. “From a spiritual point of view, try and give people choices: prayer, forgiveness work, charitable work, anything to help them feel better and stronger. There is a danger if you say, ‘We know what’s best for you and this will work’.”

Many people have found spiritual support to be very important in their recovery. “In a piece of research I am just finishing it shows belonging to a religious organisation, such as Christian worship, has a positive effect on the recovery of people with mental health distress going through a crisis,” says Becky Shaw, who runs a mental health support group and trains professionals. “There is a feeling of belonging, community and much valued support, especially when the people we interviewed had very few family or friends.”

Philip Clements is a retired Anglican vicar who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which has led to episodes of psychosis. During these times, he found his congregation to be very supportive. And he says that while psychosis can be a very distressing and disabling illness, people who experience it are not necessarily victims. Some psychologists even believe that psychosis is an exaggerated form of the artistic temperament. “Often people with bipolar disorder are very creative, and it has helped me be a writer and a poet,” says Clements. “Psychosis is not a gift from God, because it is very painful. But on balance, it has increased my sensitivity to the world around us, and my ability to express this in poetry.”

Waller points out that Julian of Norwich and some church fathers almost certainly had a long term mental health problem, as those problems are understood today. “They had visions, were quite unusual and lived in a cave, and there are probably reasons for that,” he says. “Yet the result of that was tremendous insight into God and spirituality.”

And Lisle Ryder notes that there is a simple way to discern whether experiences have divine origins. “God desires the best for all his creation and wants each of us to find love and fulfilment in life,” he says, “so visions or messages that are humiliating or life-denying are not from God.”

[This article was originally published on the Premier Mind & Soul website.]