When the psyche gets sick

More and more people are suffering from illnesses that are not easily recognised, but which affect the entire person and impact life as a whole. To mark “World Mental Health Day”, here are some thoughts on how doctors, faith, and the congregation can help.

Every year on the 10th of October, a growing number of institutions and organisations around the world draw attention to the subject. Since 1992, the date has been globally recognised as “Mental Health Day”. This day of action was launched in 1992 by the World Association for Mental Health and the World Health Organisation.

More than just a passing slump

The list of mental illnesses is long. Whether it has to do with anxieties and compulsions, stress disorders or trauma, burnout, depression, bipolar disorders, eating disorders, psychoses, or schizophrenia, one thing is clear: it is more than just a temporary low. Mental illnesses can have a massive impact on all areas of life for those affected, and can eventually lead to more extensive impairment.

Colloquially, the term ‘psyche’ is often associated with the “soul”. However, the immortal soul should not be confused with the human psyche. (Catechism of the New Apostolic Church 3.3.4, footnote). We can draw just as few conclusions about a person’s faith and immortal soul from his/her mental health as from his/her physical health.

Examples from the Bible

Beyond physical illness, the Bible also acknowledges mental illnesses: on one occasion, Elijah expressed suicidal thoughts, withdrew from his surroundings, and wished for death (1 Kings 19: 4). Things even became too much for Moses, who had been called to great things. His inability to live up to his own standards made him look toward the future with anxiety (Numbers 11: 14–15).

After receiving the bad news and experiencing the blows of fate that ensued, Job went through a time filled with dark thoughts. During that period, he even wished he had died at birth (Job 3: 11). Jeremiah felt internally torn when he complained about the ridicule to which he had been subjected (Jeremiah 20: 7–9). The Bible also tells of the fits of melancholy experienced by Saul, the first king of Israel.

A burden that affects all areas of life

Since mental illness can have an impact on all areas of one’s being, it can also affect one's religious life. Illness can sometimes make it impossible to attend divine services. This may cause affected individuals to believe they are bad Christians who are undeserving of forgiveness.

Sometimes it becomes difficult—if not downright impossible—to pray, and the illness can even lead sufferers to take a distance from others and isolate themselves from their community. They may also be subject to hurtful comments and rejection from within the congregation. It is important for those surrounding the affected person to understand that mental illnesses are not subject to human will, and that they cannot be associated with sin and guilt.

A congregation permeated by the gospel can impart a feeling of security through personal attention and unconditional acceptance of all of its members. As with any physical illness, the possibility that faith might serve as a cure for mental illness should not be overstated. Even emergency pastoral care can only provide bridging support until help is available from a specialist.

Therapy and pastoral care

In its “Guide for the pastoral care of members with mental illness” the New Apostolic Church makes it clear: the New Apostolic Church has no reservations about psychotherapy that respects the person as a whole—including his/her faith. This kind of therapy is not harmful to faith. On the contrary, such therapists make use of existing sources of strength in their patients, which in Christians inevitably include faith. And so it is that psychotherapy and faith can work together hand in hand.

Many patients can be helped by qualified psychotherapy—possibly supplemented by medication. The Church advocates a relationship of trust between the psychotherapist, the patient, and those close to the patient. Ministers provide sensitive support through compassion and prayer. However, the ministers are only to provide support. It is the therapist who is responsible for treating the disease. The focus of pastoral care is to accompany the sick with understanding, benevolence, and patience, to encourage them, to strengthen their trust in God, and to pray for them.

It is here that the comforting promise of God's companionship and unconditional faithfulness applies (Psalm 73: 26): “My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Article info


Simon Heiniger
Congregational life