Half of evangelicals believe prayer can heal mental illness

By Bob Smietana

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A third of Americans – and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians – believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness, according to a recent survey by Nashville-based LifeWay Research.

PrintThe survey also found most Americans (68 percent) would feel welcome in church if they were mentally ill.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said Christians care about those affected by mental illness.

He’s glad churches are seen as a welcome place for those with depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

But he worries some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition.

Christians will go to the doctor if they break their leg, he said. But some may try to pray away serious mental illness.

“They forget that the key part of mental illness is the word ‘illness,’” he said. “In a typical evangelical church, half the people believe mental illness can be solved by prayer and Bible study alone.”

LifeWay Research asked four questions about mental illness as part of a telephone survey of 1,001 Americans conducted Sept. 6-10, 2013.

Thirty-five percent agree with the statement, “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.” Print

Responses are split by both faith and age.

Fifty percent of those 18-29 years old say prayer and Bible study could overcome mental illness. That number falls to less than 30 percent for those 55-64.

Evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians (48 percent) agree prayer can overcome mental illness. Only 27 percent of other Americans agree.

Among other findings:

Just over half (51 percent) say someone close to them has experienced mental illness. That number drops to 37 percent for those over 65.

Fifty-four percent of Americans say churches should do more to prevent suicide. That number jumps to 64 percent among evangelical, fundamentalist or born-again Christians.

Americans who never attend church services are the least likely to agree that churches welcome those with mental illness. Those who attend weekly see churches as welcoming.

Tim Clinton, president of the Forest, Va.-based American Association of Christians Counselors, said spirituality can play a crucial role in treating mental illness.

He called it “soul care.”

Clinton hopes more churches will become open to talking about mental illness. That means taking a holistic approach that deals with spiritual, emotional and physical concerns.

That can involve counseling, medication, as well as prayer and Bible study.

“Churches need to be biblical communities of healing, “ he said.

High-Resolution Research Graphs and Charts


Methodology: LifeWay Research asked these questions about mental illness as part of an omnibus telephone survey conducted Sept. 6-10, 2013, among a random sample of Americans representative of the U.S. population of adults. Responses were weighted by age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, region, and CBSA market size. Interviews were conducted in either Spanish or English. Both listed and unlisted numbers were called, and approximately 20 percent of the sample was reached by cell phone. The sample size of 1,001 provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +3.1 percentage points.


  1. says

    “But he worries some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition.”

    Fact – that is how some people (Christian or not) will always see mental illness.

    Thirty-five percent agree with the statement, “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.”

    Many of these folks would likely also agree with the thinking that one can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In the simplest of real world examples, try that sometimes – put on a pair of boots, then sit your butt on the ground and try to pull yourself to a completely upright position. Assuming you don’t get hurt in the process, you should find it difficult to impossible to do.

    “Just over half (51 percent) say someone close to them has experienced mental illness. That number drops to 37 percent for those over 65.”

    Sorry, but the older folks are probably in denial or those they know who are, in fact, mentally ill have not disclosed the fact to their friends for fear of the stigma associated with it.

    How do I know this? First hand. I *am* mentally ill. I live with it daily. I am evangelical in the sense that I am a protestant by practice, born again spiritually, and baptized. Prayer helps a great deal, but it has not cured me anymore than medication or therapy has. Grace will take me home; what I need is understanding from my brothers and sisters in Christ that “normal” is but a setting on a dryer, or a city in Illinois that United doesn’t fly to.

  2. Karen Fernandes says

    Finally a Christian magazine that is positive about medicine for Chemical Imbalances. I was one of those people who thought if I just pray it will go away… taking medicine wouldnt heal it and to this day I have people who tell me they are praying for me to get off my medicine – to them it is a sign of weakness – I say that God gave us medicine and doctors and if it wasnt a medical problem that medicine would not work. The Lord worked on my many years on that and I know that He made me and is not ashamed of me since he made me with a chemical imbalance – we all have broken bodies because of Adam and Eve – kuddos to you for standing up for the truth!

  3. Ellen says

    This is one of the reasons that I don’t go to church anymore. Going to a shrink was taboo; I should have counseled with the pastor. Praying for healing and being prayed for, and not being healed, was my fault. Lack of faith, unconfessed sin, not tithing, etc. Did find a church that welcomed the broken and wounded, but that changed after the pastor stepped down. The church wanted to change its focus. I do believe, I just don’t attend anymore.

    • Doug Jones says

      Hi Ellen, I hope you are able to reconnect with a loving Christ community. We all need each other. Don’t give up on the church. You know what they say “If you find the perfecr church, you’d better leave before you spoil it”
      I’m sure your story needs to be shared to help others. God bless.

    • jessica beltran garcia says

      I too have been personally challenged and touched with mental illness. My sister died by suicide 2 years ago and I believe that she too left the church because she felt misunderstood & criticized. I want to echo Doug’s feedback on finding a supportive Christian community. Living with mental illness is hard enough and God never intended for us to feel alone. Find a loving, compassionate Christian community. Church leaders are mortals just like us and their stance on mental illness is not always correct. Unfortunately for many touched by mental illness the burden is on us to help others understand where they are mistaken and/or find another loving community.

      2Corinthians 1:3-4 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

    • Cindie says

      I am sorry for your experience, Ellen, but it is typical. When my former mother-in-law (who battled schizophrenia) for 40 years, passed away, the Methodist church that she belonged to declined to perform her services. She was a third generation church member; her son, 4th generation, and her granddaughter (my daughter) being 5th generation.

      Most African-American churches don’t “believe” that mental illnesses are real; they anoint with oil, encourage people to throw their medications away, and then attack the mentally ill as not having “faith” if they don’t recover.

      I don’t attend anymore, either.

  4. Tom says

    Did these questions allow for any qualifications? Just look at this question: “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.”

    Do I think that most of the time mental illness is cured by prayer aside from medical treatment? No. Neither do I think that cancer is cured most of the time aside from medical treatment. But to suggest to a Christian that prayer alone couldn’t cure cancer or a mental illness would be to strip away one’s faith in the power of prayer. As a Christian, I must say yes, prayer alone COULD cure a mental illness. To say otherwise would be antithetical to the Christian faith.

    • James Carrier says

      Agreed! If a Christian is diagnosed with cancer, treatment is aggressively pursued. Prayer is also aggressively made. Which is correct is an unfair question. We do both and leave the results to God.

    • Criselda says

      “But to suggest to a Christian that prayer alone couldn’t cure cancer or a mental illness would be to strip away one’s faith in the power of prayer.”

      I am not sure how you come to that conclusion. The question specifically said ALONE. You do not believe that it can be cured with just prayer ALONE so your answer would be no…or you would be giving false information. The question does not say it had to be treated WITHOUT prayer. I assume when asked that question that it takes prayer AND medical care.

  5. Kara Ing says

    Mr. Smietana,

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post about Christians’ attitudes toward mental health. This issue is important to bring to the forefront, as it is one that increasingly affects our society. As the Bible calls for holistic care, it is imperative that the Church considers how it should be interacting with the mental health community, both those who are directly and indirectly affected by mental illness. Additionally, if the Church is to impact the community around it, it cannot turn a blind eye to or mistreat mental health issues, as such issues affect an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans above the age of 18. This matters to Christians and non-Christians alike; mental illness comprises over 15% of the burden of disease in the United States economy. With a $4.35 billion funding cut in mental health services from state budgets in the past three years, the Church may have the resources to help the communities with which it interacts.

    Your post presents the research about the Church’s attitudes toward the mental health community. As you point out, Christians will seek medical treatment for physical ailments, but there is still, by and large, a stigma on mental ailments within the Church. This stigma obstructs the Church’s ability to comprehend and address the needs of its community in its entirety. So now my question is: what next? How can we bring mental health to the pulpit, so to speak? Moreover, why does it matter that the Church thinks about mental health issues? Mental health is no small problem and the Church is no small institution. With the strong correlation between mental disabilities and poverty or, at least, poor development outcomes, it seems to me that there is great potential for the Church to play a key role in providing mental healthcare services to communities in need as it seek to engage in and serve those communities.

    Why is it important for the Church to pursue understanding of and support for the mental health community? As we have seen, mental health has enormous impacts on the way a community functions and develops. According to my research, in the US, there have been 61 mass shootings in the past three decades, and of those shooters, 31 have displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the shootings. A 2006 Bureau of Justice study showed that over half of all prison inmates have mental health problems. In community development, the population affected by mental disorders is often overlooked or excluded. As the Church seeks to be involved in developing communities, it must recognize this marginalized population and integrate strategies for serving them into its plans. To bring mental health into discussion and to remove the stigma, I propose that churches actively seek out opportunities to provide services to mental health patients and their families. Organizations like Mental Health Grace Alliance seek to inform and support mental health patients and family members of patients on how medical treatment can intertwine with spiritual treatment. Interestingly, spirituality is thought to positively contribute to mental health by allowing people to feel a sense of belonging to a larger whole. By partnering with organizations, such as Grace Alliance, local churches can encourage treatment and show their support for families of patients. It is time for the Church to put into practice strategies that allow it to more actively engage with the mental health community and to positively impact society in this way.


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