Is Prayer the Best Medicine for Mental Illness?

When an arm is broken, we don’t just pray for it — we fix it. Why we should treat the brain the same way.

If you break your arm, you go to a doctor and get a cast. If you get cancer, you endure treatments of radiation, chemotherapy, or both. But if you receive a diagnosis for depression or schizophrenia, you might hear a lot about spiritual solutions.

Broken arms and cancer are identifiably biological flaws, but many people still have a hard time viewing mental illness as solely biological. People tend to see mental illness as deeply spiritual — but there are unexpected side effects of meting out a solely spiritual solution.

What causes mental illness? Doctors and scientists believe that genetic, biological, and environmental factors may be a part of the cause. According to Eric Kandel, professor at Columbia University and Nobel Prize laureate, mental illness is biological: “All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases.”

According to Lifeway Research, 27 percent of Americans — and 48 percent of Americans who identify as evangelical — believe that prayer and Bible study alone can heal mental illness. However, when lack of belief is perceived as the catalyst for illness, unanticipated pressure is added to a person’s struggle for wellness.

Trite answers don’t help. Stating that a person “just needs to pray more” or that they “need to read the Bible” tells them not that there is help available, but that they are doing something wrong. It implies that if only they were a little more perfect, or a little closer to God, their trials would disappear.

People have fallen into this way of thought for centuries. Before modern medical advances, people were skeptical of those born with a biological affliction. To wit:

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3)

Through developments in medicine and technology, we now have more tools to treat mental illness, and those tools should be used. To do so does not suggest a lack of faith in God. Rather, it means giving concrete care to those struggling with a complex illness. “We wouldn’t shame someone for getting a virus,” says Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research. “Why do we shame someone for having a chemical imbalance that leads him or her to a lifelong struggle with depression?”

If we tell a struggling person to pray more, it reinforces a divide between them and a loving God. If we sit with a struggling person, and maybe pray with them, or pray silently as we are present with them, religion provides succor and allows individuals to work through their disease. Religion only helps when it allows people to experience an intense love that leads to positive personal growth and change. If religion makes people feel guilty or rejected, it only further harms their mental well-being.

Is mental illness physical or spiritual? Both, and both aspects should be treated. Medicine as well as prayer, therapy beside scripture study. There are no easy cures for the complexity that is mental illness.


Image by John Stephen Fernandez.

Lacy Cooke
Written by

  • HildyJJ

    This article makes many good points and then ruins them with the assertion that mental illness is both spiritual and physical. Mental illness has no more of a spiritual component than cancer or heart disease. Spiritually speaking, mental illness and cancer and heart disease are caused by gods or demons. Science has eventually convinced all but the most deluded believer that cancer and heart disease are purely physical problems. Yet believers have taken refuge in the brain, their new god organ (supplanting the heart).

    Prayer remains a powerful placebo for believers, but only when they pray for themselves. In the largest studies of intercessory prayer (praying for someone else to be helped), it was shown to have no effect. So pray or light candles or buy charms to make yourself feel better but take the mentally ill to a real doctor, not an exorcist, to help them get better.