Can a Christian Have Mental Illness?

Causes of Mental Illness

Some Christians believe that Christians cannot have mental illness. If a professing Christian is depressed, anxious, or bipolar, they think it’s because they are not a real Christian, or that there is some terrible sin they haven’t repented of, or that they need to repent of the depression or whatever the problem is. Nearly half (48 percent) of evangelicals believe that serious mental illness can be overcome with prayer and Bible study alone.1

The result of this condemnation of mental illness as sin is that many Christians do not admit they have a mental illness, they don’t talk about it, and they don’t reach out for help. If they do reach out, they will often turn to the secular world instead of the church, because they sense they will get more understanding, sympathy, and help there. However, secular approaches can sometimes lead to further spiritual difficulties and complications. If we want to overcome these challenges, we need to understand three reasons why Christians can suffer with mental illness.

A Christian's Guide to Mental Illness

David Murray, Tom Karel

This accessible resource answers 30 commonly asked questions about mental health from a Christian perspective, providing caregivers with the biblical wisdom necessary to care for those with mental illnesses.

Christians Can Have Mental Illness Simply Because They Are Human

Christians have broken bodies. A Christian’s body is just as fallen and weak as any other person’s body. That means they can have heart attacks, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and, yes, mental illness. Their brains can break, their chemistry and electricity can malfunction, their hormones can be imbalanced, and so on.

Christians live in a broken world. Christians are not shielded from the effects of living in a fallen world. We have accidents, we are abused, we are wronged, we are lied about. People hurt us, some intentionally, some unintentionally. We see and hear sad and painful events and stories that traumatize us. We lose loved ones. Our families break up. Trauma has been shown to change the shape, size, and functionality of the brain and other bodily systems that are related to how we think and feel.

Christians get stressed. We are designed to function for short amounts of time under high stress and then to return to calm and more relaxed functioning. But when our bodies and minds are under stress for long periods of time, our God-given stress-response system (our “fight or flight response system,” as noted earlier) can malfunction. When we are confronted by some sort of threat (real or perceived, physical or emotional), a small structure in the back of our brains (the amygdala) takes over in order to respond to and survive the perceived threat. This works really well when we are confronted by an external threat (e.g., a dangerous animal). Our bodies respond, as they were designed, to eliminate or to withdraw from the threat. We either fight our way to safety or run away from the threat. Once we have gotten to safety, the amygdala’s survival function is no longer required and relaxes; now the front part of the brain (rational and calm thinking) can again take over; the body and the brain can relax.

However, when a person feels under constant threat, when there is no relief from the threat, stress, or pressure, the amygdala remains activated. It takes over the pleasure centers of the body and brain (limbic system), producing excessive and continuous amounts of the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol. Eventually, these chemicals attack the internal organs and overall health of the person. While these chemicals are fine in short and small doses, when sustained for a long time they can become extremely dangerous to our physical and mental health.2 Stress can also trigger an underlying vulnerability to mental illness that may not have been activated in calmer circumstances.

We hope you are beginning to see that Christians are just as human as everyone else and therefore suffer and get stressed like everyone else. But you might wonder, does mental illness ever come to believers as a result of personal sin?

Christians Can Have Mental Illness Because They Are Sinners

Personal sin can cause depression through physical and spiritual damage. But there are two additional reasons why Christians in particular may experience mental illness. First, there’s the divine chastisement that’s reserved for God’s children, as King David found out when he committed adultery and murder! Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 reveal the depression and anxiety that David felt while living in unconfessed sin. If God chastised us with mental illness every time we sinned, we’d all be depressed all the time! Thankfully, in his mercy, he does not do that. However, if our sin is especially serious or we are stubbornly unrepentant in it, God may afflict our minds and emotions to get our attention and make us seek his mercy and grace. God’s discipline, then, is to teach us how bad sin is and to draw us back to himself. So, though painful at the time, it is ultimately for our good.

Christians are just as human as everyone else and therefore suffer and get stressed like everyone else.

Second, the absence of Christian virtues and graces can also damage our moods and our minds. For example, if we are not praying, if we are not reading our Bibles, if we are not consciously growing in God-centered faith, love, hope, patience, trust, and worship, these deficits may eventually cause mental, emotional, and spiritual damage. Worry and anxiety will take the place of trust and confidence; independence and self-control will replace dependence and God’s control; working for acceptance with God will take the place of trusting Christ for acceptance with God; and a secular identity will replace a Christian identity. All these replacements carry emotional and mental costs which, over time, can result in mental illness.

“But surely,” one might say, “Christians have less mental illness than non-Christians?”

Sometimes, it’s just the opposite.

Christians Can Have Mental Illness Because They Are Christians

While Christians have more resources to combat mental illness than non-Christians, they can also have more vulnerability to it than non-Christians. We can see that in three ways.

Christians are especially targets of the devil. While the devil targets all people, he especially hates God’s people (Gen. 3:15). He hates them because they used to be his, and he wants to get them back. He wants to destroy their happiness in Christ. He therefore attacks them with greater ferocity and will do all in his power to damage them. Battling against such spiritual warfare is hot and stressful. It takes a toll on us in many ways, including on our thoughts, emotions, and even our bodies. The devil tempts us and tests us in ways that he doesn’t tempt and test non-Christians.

Christians are especially conscious of their sin. One of the effects of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to show us our sinfulness. We see the evil in our own hearts more than ever before. That can be scary and depressing, especially if we don’t bring the gospel to bear upon these dark and discouraging experiences. We also get cast down at our weakness in the face of temptation and because of the little progress we’re making in the Christian life.

Christians are especially affected by all the sin and suffering in the world. When we are brought to Christ by his grace, and as we become more like Christ, we are tenderized in our hearts and made more sensitive to evil in the world. We see people’s sins in a new light, especially the sins of loved ones, and we grieve over the disorder that sin causes. We see tragedies, wars, terrorism with increased agony because of the suffering inflicted, and especially because people are being swept into eternity without the gospel.


  1. “Mental Health: Half of Evangelicals Believe Prayer Can Heal Mental Illness,” Lifeway Research, September 17, 2013, -half-of-evangelicals-believe-prayer-can-heal-mental-illness/.
  2. Anjali Chandra, “Fight or Flight: When Stress Becomes Our Own Worst Enemy,” Harvard Science Review 20, no. 1 (December 3, 2015), /hsrfall15invadersanddefenders. -when-stress-becomes-our-own-worst-enemy/.

This article is adapted from A Christian’s Guide to Mental Illness: Answers to 30 Common Questions by Tom Karel and David Murray.

Related Articles

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at