Mental Health or Demonic Influence? - Gordon Conwell

Mental Health or Demonic Influence?

The sunrise silhouettes a woman looking out a window on a snowy morning
Navigating the Complex Arena of Suicidal Thinking

Dr. Karen Mason
Professor of Counseling and Psychology, Director of the Hamilton Counseling Department

While there are a variety of resources available to help those who seek to minister to those with suicidal thoughts, I want to focus on a specific challenge Christians confront: How should a counselor or pastor determine whether someone’s suicidal thinking arises from a mental health issue or demonic influence?

I have had several clients with mental health conditions, including suicidal thinking, tell me that their church held an exorcism for them. When these Christians continued to experience their condition following the exorcism, some stopped going to church. That is a tragedy. These Christians struggled with understanding why a God who loved them did not deliver them, and, more, they felt traumatized by the exorcism itself. To minister to suicidal Christians, it is important to take the time to discern between mental health conditions and demonic activity and to not assume that all mental health conditions require spiritual deliverance. It is vital to take the time to discern between spirits (1 Cor 12:10). Here are five suggested guardrails for both faith leaders and counselors.

  1. Take the time to discern: Is the condition a manifestation of demonic activity or is it just a mental health issue, or both? Christians can experience demonic activity, but this can sometimes look like a mental health condition. For example, the hallmark of schizophrenia is bizarre hallucinations or delusions. Some may wonder if the phenomenon is a result of demonic activity. Suicidal thinking is oriented to self-destruction just is as demonic activity. One must apply discernment to determine if certain behaviors manifest a mental health condition, demonic activity, or both. All three are possible. In order to assist in the healing of the person who is suffering, discernment is key. (Applying specific tools for enabling such discernment is a topic for a future post.)
  2. Not all psychological illnesses are a result of demonic activity requiring deliverance. When Jesus healed, he did not always cast out a demon. This suggests that some illnesses are not related to demonic activity. While Jesus’ healing sometimes did include casting out demons,[1] at other times Jesus did not cast out demons.[2]
  3. Though all illness does not require deliverance, all illness is due to Satan. Satan is at work wherever we encounter the brokenness of sin.[3] Mark McMinn describes three types of sin which can be attributed to Satan’s work: sinfulness, our general state of brokenness, such as a genetic vulnerability to suicidal thinking; sinful acts, such as committing murder; and consequences of sin, such as a parent’s abuse resulting in suicidal thinking. Sin and Satan are at the root of all brokenness.[4]
  4. All healing comes from God. God can miraculously heal all illnesses, including mental health conditions. My colleague, Dr. Jack Davis differentiates between God’s extraordinary supernatural interventions, God’s ordinary supernatural interventions, and the natural processes God has built into His creation.[5] While God can heal mental health conditions in a moment, including suicidal thinking, most often the Holy Spirit heals over time and through natural processes. These processes are just as supernatural as extraordinary healings, though they take more time.
  5. God’s natural healing processes are available to all humans. Not only is the healing process created by God, but the Holy Spirit superintends this natural healing process. For example, James Pennebaker found that writing one’s story helps humans manage life’s challenges.[6] The Holy Spirit likewise attends scientific evidence-based treatments for suicidal thinking.[7] An example is The Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS), an evidence-based treatment framework for suicidal people.

Suicidal Christians are in our churches, and they need our ministry. They need us to discern carefully the causes of their suffering, discern carefully the appropriate interventions, and refer them for additional help if needed.

To help a suicidal person choose life, call or text 988 or visit the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline website.

[1] Mt 9:32-33; Mt 12:22; Lk11:14
[2] Lk 4:40; Mt 9:20; Jn 5:5-8; Jn 11:17-44
[3] Lk 13:10-17; Rom 8:22; Acts 10:38; Eph 6:12; 1 Pet 5:8
[4] McMinn, Mark. (2008). Sin and Grade in Christian Counseling. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p. 154.
[5] Davis, J.J. (2012). Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p. 38. For respective examples of each, see Acts 19:11; Jn 14:26 / Rom 8:26; and Prov 8:22-31 /  1 Tim 5:23.
[6] Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166
[7] Kuyper, A., Ballor, J. J., Grabill, S. J., & Kloosterman, N. D. (2011). Wisdom & Wonder: Common grace in science & art. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian’s Library Press, p. 46.

Dr. Karen Mason, PhD, LPC, is Professor of Counseling and Psychology and the Director of the Hamilton Counseling Department. She has written several books on suicide prevention for pastors and churches. Her most recent book, The Essentials of Suicide Prevention: A Blueprint for Churches, came out this year with Cascade Books.

Related Books by Dr. Karen Mason:

Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors
Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit
The Essentials of Suicide Prevention: A Blueprint for Churches