A Personal Response to Voddie Baucham on Mental Illness
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator. This piece originally ran on December 21, 2014.
Over the last week I listened to and transcribed Voddie Baucham’s sermon “Nebuchadnezzar Loses His Mind.” I grew up in the Christian homeschool world in which Baucham is popular. I have written numerous times about my own struggles with major depressive disorder and suicidal urges, as well as been publicly critical about the American Evangelical Church’s handling of mental health issues, I take Baucham’s sermon seriously. The ideas he expresses here are admired and continue to be disseminated in the Christian homeschool world. These ideas are damaging to many people and must be spoken up against to protect children growing up in that same world today.
I also take Baucham’s sermon personally.
As someone who strives to take Jesus of Nazareth seriously, yet daily fights depression and suicide, I know full well the crushing weight that these ideas can have one’s life.
I know the immense guilt and shame they heap on people. I also know they have no basis in reality, are contrary to the history of Christianity’s relationship with mental health, and thus deserve to be called out for what they are: a twisting of the gospel and a careless rejection of science — in other words, of the nature that Baucham’s God so carefully made. To reject nature, as revealed by the science and reason so graciously gifted to us, is to reject God and exchange the gospel for fear and supernaturalistic dogma.
There is much in Baucham’s sermon I could critique. But I want, for the sake of length, to focus on three specific problems: (1) a misunderstanding of the basic nature of mental illness, (2) a misunderstanding of basic medical-scientific definitions, and (3) a misunderstanding of why people don’t talk to their pastors about their very real mental health struggles.
A misunderstanding of mental illness
I’d like to start at the beginning of Voddie Baucham’s sermon, where he reveals at the outset that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Baucham introduces the topic of mental illness by claiming that Nebuchadnezzar’s curse in Daniel 4 was a curse of schizophrenia:
You can act like Daniel, Chapter 4 is not here and we can not deal with the question of schizophrenia. But then you gotta read Job and you gotta deal with clinical depression. “Oh we’ll just act like Job is not there.” That’s fine. We’ll deal with the Apostle Paul and the murders he oversaw and then we can talk about post-traumatic stress disorder. “Well, I don’t really want to talk about that.” Ok, fine, if you don’t want to talk about that, let’s talk about Jesus, shall we? In the Garden of Gethsemane, where he experiences a classic instance of anxiety. Or better yet, when he comes to the tomb of Lazarus, weeping, there in depression, but then resuscitates Lazarus, and they celebrate — now he’s bipolar. Let’s not even talk about the Psalms, where you find every manner of what we would define as “mental illness” expressed by the psalmist himself.
Right here, at the beginning, Baucham disqualifies himself from discussing these issues in any accurate, sensitive, or thoughtful manner. In fact, his introduction to this topic trots out some of the most ridiculous myths and stereotypes about mental illnesses with which people daily suffer. For example: Job went through horrible times, was sad, and therefore was clinically depressed. In other words, “sadness” is “depression.” Or Jesus weeping? That’s “depression.”
No. No, it’s not. When you’re sad, you’re sad. When you’re depressed, you’re depressed. Those are two completely different categories. Sadness is an emotion. Depression is a disorder marked by clearly defined symptoms. You see this marginalization of depressed individuals all the time in our society. Did you miss the opportunity to buy tickets to your favorite band and thus described yourself as “depressed”? You’re doing exactly what Baucham is doing: using a word that means something medically to describe nothing more than emotional state. When Jesus wept, he was being emotional. Being emotional is not the same as being mentally ill, though people — like Baucham — who marginalize and stigmatize the mentally ill love to make this equivocation. They love to do so because it allows them to collapse emotions with mental illness and thereby prove the latter amounts to nothing more than the unnatural (or “sinful”) rejection of the former.
When Jesus experienced sadness and wept, and then experienced happiness and rejoiced — those were normal human emotions, not bipolar disorder. And I don’t know a single psychiatrist or psychologist or emergency care physician or general practitioner who would confuse the two. He’s flogging nothing but straw men here. In other words, Baucham is the one confusing the two, not mental health professionals — which is why it’s a good thing that Baucham is not such a professional nor is qualified to treat those who suffer from mental illness.
A misunderstanding of definitions
One sees the continuation of Baucham’s ignorance of mental health when he goes on the attack about mental health terminology such as “symptom,” “syndrome,” and “disorder.” He tries to parse these terms to prove that mental illnesses, unlike physical illnesses, lack scientific basis. He even imputes some species of conspiracy to the professions of psychology and psychiatry (two entirely different professions, which he constantly equivocates between). Here’s an example:
Most Christians don’t know that there is no such thing as chemical imbalance. There’s no test for it. There never has been a test for it… That’s why we use the term “syndrome” or “disorder.”… Psychiatry and psychology have never cured anyone of anything nor do they claim to be able to. Let me say that one more time slowly. Psychology and psychiatry — and they’re not the same thing, one’s a medical doctor who goes to medical school, a psychiatrist, gets a medical degree, k? And they can dispense drugs, and, and that’s pretty much all they do, just dispense drugs and [unintelligible] drugs — and the other one, a psychologist, you don’t go to medical school, that’s a complete different degree, k? But in both instances, psychology and psychiatry have never cured anyone of anything. By the way, in order to cure somebody, you need to be able to diagnose them accurately, right? If you can’t diagnose someone accurately, and there’s no test to demonstrate what a person has, how could you know if you cured them? You can’t…. I’m not telling you my opinion, by the way. Everything I’ve stated for you up to this point is just pure fact… The reason they said “disorder” or “syndrome” is because it is not a disease….You do not have a medical diagnosis. It’s not a disease. And, and it’s time to, to, to expose the man behind the curtain on this one. Because he’s been parading as the great and powerful Oz for far too long.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin here. Much of what Baucham is saying is based on an outdated model of anti-psychiatry championed by a man named Thomas Szasz in the 1950’s. Had Baucham bothered to do a simple internet search — or even a lazy perusal of Szasz’s Wikipedia page, at the very least — he might have known this. As it stands, Baucham is merely repeating discredited science from decades ago.
Or there’s the asinine stereotype of psychiatrists being nothing more than psychotrophic Pez dispensers. While I am sure there must be psychiatrists out there who do that (since it’s a common stereotype), every psychiatrist I know is careful in handing out medication and also highly emphasizes exercise, meditation, positive thinking, spirituality, community programs, therapy, and so forth. Baucham’s picture of the average psychiatrist sounds more like an old stereotype of evil, lab-coated psychiatrists than actual, real psychiatrists in the 21st century.
But probably the most problematic part of these statements is Baucham’s understanding of the alleged inferiority of “disorders” and “syndromes.” So let’s look at 4 basic definitions to clear this up:
1) “Symptom”: A symptom refers to an observable behavior or state.
2) “Syndrome”: A syndrome indicates a cluster or combination of symptoms that occur together over time. It does not directly imply an underlying cause. The symptoms that occur together may or may not actually be related. Some syndromes, such as Parkinsonian syndrome, have multiple possible causes.
3) “Disorder”: Disorder means a functional abnormality or disturbance. Like a syndrome, a disorder is indicated by a combination of symptoms and does not necessarily have proven underlying cause.
4) “Disease”: A disease is a disorder where the underlying cause is known.
Baucham plays fast and loose with all these definitions to throw mental illness into a negative light, frequently referring to the illnesses as “syndromes” and “disorders” (rhetorically emphasizing the quotation marks as if they are figments of sufferers’ imaginations). He stresses that, as syndromes and disorders, mental illnesses have no set methods of diagnosis or cure.
The problem here is that Baucham ignores the fact that syndromes and disorders exist outside of the realm of mental illness as well. Take carpal tunnel syndrome, for example. It is highly unlikely (though I could be wrong) that Baucham would take people to task who claim they have carpal tunnel syndrome — the real, physical feelings of sharp pain that most people believe are caused by repetitive motions. Like mental illnesses, carpal tunnel syndrome has symptoms. However, also like mental illnesses, most cases of carpal tunnel syndrome (1) are idiopathic, or have no proven, known, or “scientific” cause, (2) are nonetheless diagnosed because many people report similar experiences, yet (3) there is no objective, all-mighty standard for the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome.
In other words, Baucham might as well have dedicated his entire sermon to “disproving” the seriousness of carpal tunnel syndrome and attacking and belittling medical professionals who attempt to help those who suffer from it. But he did not. He instead chose to apply these arguments selectively to mental illness.
That’s not a coincidence. Rather, it’s nothing less than proof that Baucham is wrong in claiming that, “far from there being a stigma anymore with mental illness,” “we’re proud of our mental illnesses. We wear them like a badge. We won’t tell people our phone number but we’ll tell them our diagnoses.”
That’s not actually the case. In fact, we can directly disprove it by thinking about the differences — in the work place — when it comes to something like carpal tunnel syndrome versus something like a mental illness. If you are a cashier at a grocery store, the workplace would be supportive — in fact, would demand you to inform your superiors — of your getting proper care and treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. This syndrome would be considered “real” — despite the fact that, as I just said, most cases of carpal tunnel syndrome (1) are idiopathic, or have no proven, known, or “scientific” cause, (2) are nonetheless diagnosed because many people report similar experiences, yet (3) there is no objective, all-mighty standard for the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. Despite all 3 of these facts, your workplace would never question your pain. You would also never turn up at a church — even Voddie Baucham’s church — and be subjected to an hour-plus sermon about how your carpal tunnel syndrome had a “direct link” to your “sin.”
But now imagine if you are a cashier at a grocery store and you suffer from bipolar disorder. Like carpal tunnel syndrome, bipolar disorder (1) is idiopathic, (2) is nonetheless diagnosed because many people report similar experiences, yet (3) there is no objective, all-mighty standard for its diagnosis. Yet not only would you feel less comfortable telling your manager about your bipolar disorder, your manager would also feel less comfortable supporting you in managing your disorder. Indeed, in a recent survey of 2,000 individuals from a cross-section of industries, it was found that over 50% “thought that if they were open about a mental health issue it would damage their career prospects.” If over 50% of employees who suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome felt their jobs were threatened from speaking up, OSHA would be all over that. But even if this was not the case: it is far easier to receive government acknowledgment that your workplace caused carpal tunnel syndrome (and thus receive worker’s compensation) than to receive government acknowledgment that your workplace caused a mental illness. Whether you believe it should exist or not, there is an inherent bias against the latter that is built within the worker’s compensation system.
That is the reality of mental health stigma. And Baucham has indirectly proven that it is still alive and well, just by the way he framed this discussion.
A misunderstanding of why people don’t talk to their pastors
Baucham attempts to challenge (or probably, in terms of results, shame) his listeners into revealing their private medical histories to their church leaders. Baucham says,
If you’re here today and you’re being treated by someone for a mental illness, and you have not informed your elders — first, I want to ask you a question. Why on God’s green earth would you do that? Why? By the way, I can tell you the answer: Because you’ve bought the lie.
Now I’m going to get a bit personal here and go out on a limb: If people aren’t telling their pastors about their mental health struggles, it’s probably because their pastors’ perspectives on mental illness are just as horrible as Voddie Baucham’s.
I don’t mean that as an ad hominem. I’m deadly serious: people die every day because of the stigma and public shaming of the mentally ill. A significant amount of that stigma and public shaming comes from Christian communities, churches, and leaders. And a significant amount of that stigma and public shaming looks just like Voddie Baucham’s sermon. The fact that he does not see how crippling and destructive the ideas he has communicated here are only goes to show how far certain Christians need to come to better support the mentally ill.
That is why many people don’t reveal their mental health struggles with their churches. Because when they do so, they often hear exactly what Baucham said.
In a 2008 Baylor University study, Matthew Stanford found the following among church attendees with professionally diagnosed mental illness(es):
- 41% were told by someone at their church that they did not really have mental illness.
- 28% were told by someone at their church to stop taking psychiatric medication.
- 37% were told by someone at their church that their mental illness was the result of personal sin.
- 34% were told by someone at their church that their mental illness was the result of demonic involvement.
A recent 2014 study by LifeWay Research also revealed that, “Only a quarter of churches (27 percent) have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness according to pastors.”
Instead of pushing people who suffer from mental illness to publicly disclose diagnoses that often lead to further shaming and stigmatization (like the shaming and stigmatization in Baucham’s own sermon), Baucham should be working to end stigma. He should be urging his church leadership — and other churches — to transform their communities to be places where the mentally ill feel safe and welcome: where they won’t be told their illnesses are caused by sin, where they aren’t treated as though their illnesses were second-rate illnesses or figments of their imagination, and where their pastors are actually equipped to assist them (or know when to stop pontificating unscientifically about mental illness and instead encourage to seek actual professionals).
Until Voddie Baucham can understand something as simple as the difference between Nebuchadnezzar’s curse and schizophrenia, he needs to sit down and pass the microphone to those who do.