The Elephant of Mental Illness and Addiction

Of all the things I’ve lost, I think I miss my mind the most.”  — Author obviously unknown

One of the hardest elephants to talk about involves the most major of major organs in our human bodies.

Over my years of working first as a therapist and more recently as a pastor, I find it intriguing how easily people can present complaints having to do with bodily dysfunctions. Especially as people get older, I find it quite common for folks to compare in even casual conversation their diagnoses, medications, surgeries, doctor’s names. Especially before and after church gatherings!

So long as it does not involve the brain.

Otherwise intelligent people who can name several of the more technical terms for how the organs interact and our anatomy is supposed to function will appear dumbfounded when asked if their brain’s Frontal Lobe is supplying enough answers to the questions being raised by their Amygdala. If you don’t believe me, just try such a question on someone you consider to be of average intelligence, or above average. Ask your parent. Ask your pastor. Ask your doctor. But do be prepared for silence. As in, “which type of cheese do you think Mars is made out of?” silence.

Truth is that some people would more comfortably discuss things we have discovered about the planet of Mars than they would some rather basic things we have discovered about the human brain. Which we visit daily, believe it or not, within our own bodies. And when it comes to pastors in our churches? Some would rather talk about inter-planetary science fiction than they would about the scientific realities of our inner spiritual faith that is rooted in, yes, our human brains. What? Talk about the elephant in our very own living room?

If you’re up for a bit of new experience while reading this, why not click on this link and and watch what happens as brings you to today’s elephant.

Pretty scary stuff, huh? Well, actually no. In fact, not at all. You just watched a micro-mini lecture by a Vassar College professor. And whether you knew it or not, your brain’s Frontal Lobe was learning something about how mental illness and addiction can happen when the Amydala raises a question the Frontal Lobe has no answer for.

Another way of talking about our brains is that the part of our limbic system we call the Amygdala really functions like a little child within us. Sometimes our little child gets scared. Sometimes our little child asks a lot of questions. Which is why God has given us a Frontal Lobe within our pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part that is our inner adult. The one that can reason out the answers to calm our inner child. You and I are each walking around with a child and an adult inside our heads that, if they are not communicating, will wreck havoc on the rest of our bodies in way of stress-related diseases of the lower organs.

So what’s my point?

Well, for starters, if we’re talking about church sanctuaries in particular, our pews are full of little children whether we know it or not. Everyone in attendance has an Amygdala. Our inner children are full of questions, the biggest of which seem like scary elephants. And every adult in our pews has a Frontal Lobe whose task it is to learn and then to teach and communicate with these inner children on a regular basis. Furthermore, our Frontal Lobes will leave our sanctuary after any given service having learned something that can help hear and then answer our Amygdalas. OR, get ready for this, they will have essentially dropped the Amygdalas off at the door and then returned to pick them up after church, hoping maybe something good rubbed off on them. In which case, our mental illnesses and addictions will continue to happen. In hiding. In silence. In church.

And now the question for comment. Do you think the church can and should do more to help heal the wounds of our human minds today, even as Jesus went about healing many people from the neck up during his own day? Do you think we really can and should talk about this elephant? If so, what are your own ideas for going about this?


4 thoughts on “The Elephant of Mental Illness and Addiction

  1. Brian Cox says:

    The church can certainly help with spiritual growth, but it is handicapped when attempting to deal with mental illness and addictions. Typically it may take a trained psychiatrist months, if not years, to gain the trust of a person with a character disorder or neurosis. Addicts are even more slippery and wary, but they may be reached effectively and quickly, in the course of one or two meetings, by other recovered addicts. In both cases, mental illness and addiction, there are high hurdles of trust to be overcome which are, in my experience, rarely navigated by even the most skilled, caring and grace-filled church members. This is not a bad thing; it’s just the reality.

    I attend a church which has an attendance of, best guess, 600-800 adults per Sunday. We have an unusually large percentage of recovered and recovering addicts and alcoholics in our congregation, and because of the culture (and our head pastor’s openness about his own checkered past in this arena) we have no elephant sin the room regarding this subject. All the same, we realize from personal experience that reaching and helping addicts through the church is at best a long shot. However helpful it is to our souls to be able to frankly and openly discuss our past and present mental obsessions, the real recovery is done elsewhere.

    Thank you, though, for bringing up these elephants. I appreciate the courage it takes to risk. Making people uncomfortable. No growth happens without discomfort.

    • Well thought out response, Brian. I agree their is a spiritual process at work in the healing of both addictions and mental illness. Even on the spiritual side, much depends on the cognitive response to the brain’s own limbic emotions and impulses. Which is why we are finding that education is such a valuable part of therapy. Counseling is a total waste if it becomes all talk and no learning. Same with Christian worship. “Loving the Lord with all our minds……” requires learning from God about how our brains were created to function. Where you and I may or may not agree is that all addiction is a brain disease, treatable with adequate amounts of support and stimulation for the pre-frontal cortex that must communicate with our over-stimulated limbic system (i.e., our stinkin’ thinkin’).

  2. Ryan Hanson says:

    So recently I have had Tinnitus. The stress, and anxity take over so much it seems like the frontal lobe stops and he Amygdala seems to take over and I act like a child. I have been mad enough to break things and act irrationally. Suggestion because I feel like I am falling apart.

  3. A general comment: better for the church to remain silent than to say that mental illness and addiction is about sin. Such things went on in the Palestine of Jesus, only to have Him refute this as being untrue. Illness is not caused by sin. Brain diseases, as well as those in the Pancreas, Kidneys, etc. are not about sin. Second untruth is that medication is for weak people who are lacking in faith. Not true for someone with Diabetes, and not true for someone with a brain disorder such as depression, anxiety, etc. Counseling can sometimes help stimulate the frontal lobe enough to address the stress reactions in the amygdala, for instance, but many people need a medication to help transmit communication between the frontal lobe and amygdala in particular. That said, I normally suggest trying counseling first even as I suggest AA first for the addict. If being with supportive people does not work, then there are medical options. Ryan, in your specific situation, you may need to confide in a counselor about your anger very soon and ask if you should see a doctor about medication soon as well.
    . .

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