Twitter erupted a few days ago after founder and senior pastor of Daystar Christian Centre, Sam Adeyemi released a series of tweets about mental illness. One tweet in particular was responsible for the twitter storm that followed. It read thus:
The root cause of mental illness is sin (Rom 6:23) and the foundational solution to mental health is salvation. #Mental Health
I will not lie to you; when I saw that tweet, I had an internal explosion of rage where I sat. Then I got up, ran all the way to twitter to give my dear pastor a good hiding (Check HERE). Now, let’s get something straight: he is one man of God whose ministry I have so much respect for. And secondly, if the tweet is read in context (the tweet in question was sandwiched by other tweets on mental health), we realize that he meant well and had no intention to stigmatize the mentally ill or misinform the public. In fact, in one of the tweets, he encouraged readers to seek medical care when they are ill, that it does not contradict their faith. He even acknowledged that mental illness was as real as physical illness, and rightly pointed out that a lack of understanding was the cause of stigmatization of the mentally ill.
However, while all these are very laudable, the culprit tweet still leaves me uneasy. Let me tell you why.
As a shrink who works in a government-owned Psychiatric Hospital, the mentally ill are a part of my life. Even though I occupy the doctor’s chair and I’m mostly trying to earn a salary, I do realise that the only thing that separates me from my patient is a desk; anyone can be mentally ill. But I dare say that after talking to so many patients and losing myself in their stories, the separation is really an apparent one. The psychiatrist shares his patient’s pain and even their stigma. He is reminded of the prejudice his patient suffers when he announces his profession publicly; it’s in the stare he gets that lasts a second too long, the shocked or amused facial expressions, the immediate loss of interest that follows the declaration of his profession. Even his own patients avoid him in public. Is it not enough that they are mentally ill? Is it not enough that they die a little every time they step into the psychiatric hospital for their routine visits? Why should they publicly fraternize with a shrink? The psychiatrist understands their pain and does not mind. So don’t blame me if I took the tweet personally. I felt like it was directed at my person.
So what exactly was wrong with this one tweet? Many have argued that if read in context, the sin which Pastor Adeyemi said is the cause of mental illness should be correctly seen as the original sin (occasioned by the fall of Adam), and not the personal sin of the man who suffers mental illness. I hereby grant that if that is what he meant, then from the Christian perspective, he is absolutely correct. According to the Bible, every suffering of man is a direct consequence of the fall as recorded in the book of Genesis.
Yet I am uneasy.
In my opinion, mental health is one important issue that should not be allowed to suffer the brunt of ambiguous statements, even when no harm is intended. Far too many patients of mine stop taking their medication for one religious reason or the other and then relapse, bringing suffering that could be avoided to themselves, their families, and even the health worker. On countless occasions, I have had to morph into bible teacher in my consulting room in a bid to show my patient that taking medication – as Pastor Adeyemi pointed out – is not contrary to faith. I always find myself contending with the idea that since mental illness is spiritually caused, therefore medication is not needed. This is why I have a problem with the tweet.
This idea which could possibly be deduced from the tweet is dangerous because it appears to support a popular problematic notion regarding the cause of mental illness. In traditional Africa, mental illness is thought to be the work of evil spirits. This belief got reinforced with the advent of Christianity. Jesus cast out demons from the mentally ill and this appears to confirm our traditional ideas. But can we really think about this? If the root of mental illness is spiritual, then drugs are not needed. Teach this and more of my patients will stop taking their medication and deteriorate. It is my duty to care for my patients and shield them from anything – including toxic ideas – that will bring them harm; so I cannot keep quiet.
I admit that Pastor Adeyemi said taking medication for mental illness is advisable, but I think we need to handle a contradiction that is hardly ever addressed from the pulpit. How can we say the cause is spiritual and then with the same breath say the cure is physical? I ask you like I always ask my patients: if the cause of mental illness is indeed spiritual, why then do drugs work? Can medicine cure a spiritual problem?
I know patients who have died from other medical illnesses such as diabetes or AIDS because they claimed to have faith for the cure of a miracle. These conversations are the very kind no one wants to have. Perhaps it confuses or shames the Christian to admit that people who believe in the God of miracles don’t get healed, even when they believe to the point of death. If the foundational solution to mental illness is salvation, please explain to me why many devout Christians are mentally ill. Would you say they are not truly saved? If we say sin is the cause of mental illness, we risk making the mentally ill think that their illness is a result of something they have done. Let us not forget that this is a person who already suffers stigma, prejudice and self-loathing. Is this risk acceptable?
Is sin the cause of illness? How then do we explain this bible verse one counter-tweet so aptly quoted?
His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened that the works of God would be displayed in him.” John 3:2-3
Mental illness has been scientifically proven to have physical/biological basis, like every other illness. Pastor Adeyemi said it is “as real as physical illness”, but I will go a step further to say that IT IS a physical illness, being a disorder of the brain. As in diabetes and hypertension, one’s genetic make-up has been found to play a role. The fact that medications are effective goes to show that something very physical is going on. Unfortunately, as a result of cultural conditioning including Christian influences, mental illness is always singled out to be a condition that is primarily of spiritual origin. The consequence is that religious or traditional settings are commonly the first point of call for the mentally ill. A hospital-based study conducted in Nigeria reported that almost 70% of patients had visited religious or traditional healers before coming to the hospital. Some of my patients are chained for months, sometimes years, in churches where they are flogged, starved, humiliated and housed in inhumane conditions before they were brought to the hospital. In light of these disturbing realities, some reconciliation of the spiritual and scientific perspective of mental illness is needed.
Back to the culprit tweet; I think religious leaders are very powerful agents when it comes to propagation of ideas. Even while they play their primary roles as teachers on spiritual matters, it is their duty to avoid making statements that could perpetuate or reinforce ignorance. The masses are gullible, therefore one needs to be aware of pertinent issues and be clear when making public statements. Even though I know Pastor Adeyemi meant well, saying that sin is the cause of mental illness WITHOUT FURTHER CLARIFICATION could inadvertently propagate ignorance regarding the cause of mental illness and could negatively impact health seeking behaviour.
Written by Manny