5 Reasons Conflating Mental Illness with Demon Possession Hurts People

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Lana Hobbs’ blog Lana Hobbs the Brave. It was originally published on April 18, 2014.

Conflating demon possession with ‘madness’ hurts people.

That may sound harsh, but this is a real problem. I have been hurt by this in the past, and in the present, and others have too. When people talk about an (apparently) mentally ill person and say ‘He was definitely demon possessed’ that hurts me as a person with a mental illness. When people tell the Bible story about the ‘madman’ with demons, when they use that word ‘mad’, they are saying that the mentally ill person has demons. I have never heard this Bible story told with a caveat that mental illness often has a biological cause. I have, however, heard it told to prove that mental illness is caused by demons.

Here are five reasons you shouldn’t use the word ‘madness’ when talking about demon possession, or imply or say that mental illness is caused by demon possession.

Reason 1) It keeps people from getting help.

Who, especially a Christian, would seek help for mental issues if they know it will be attributed to demons? I was in denial about my depression for years because of the teaching that mental illness is caused by demons. Further, I didn’t get help for my panic attacks because I believed they were caused by demonic presence and would go away if I prayed enough.

Reason 2) It ‘others’ and dehumanizes mentally ill people.

It makes them out to be possessed by absolute evil, instead of treating them as regular humans who happen to have a sickness.

Reason 3) It ignores the physical reasons for mental illness, and the social reasons, such as past trauma or abuse.

Reason 4) It takes stigma to a whole new level.

Again, we’re confusing a chemical imbalance in the brain, or a misfiring of neural pathways, with the person being possessed by entirely evil beings. Anything bad you can say about stigmatizing mental illness, you can say about this concept.

Reason 5) It prevents us from trying to understand the person.

It’s a conversation ender that keeps us from looking further into the person and why they think and act the way they do.

I want people to stop using words that mean mental illness to mean demon possession.

I want people to stop assuming demon possession when the far likelier explanation is mental illness. I want people to be more careful how they talk about mental illness. I want people to be aware that 1/5 americans suffer from mental illness, and 1 in 20 of americans suffer so much that it adversely affects their lives at work, at school, and at home. I want people to realize that they need to be careful how they talk about it, because chances are good that a mentally ill person is listening. In a room with 100 people, it is statistically likely that 20 of those are dealing with some form of mental illness, and that 5 people have a severe case of it. Those people need to feel safe and like they will be treated as humans, they need to be listened to, they need to be loved, they need to feel safe enough to seek treatment.

They do not need to be made to feel as though they are infected with utter evil.

7 comments

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Reason 3) It ignores the physical reasons for mental illness, and the social reasons, such as past trauma or abuse.

    When it comes to Spiritually Abusive Churches (most of which are also into Spiritual Warfare & Exorcism), that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
    Deflecting any “reasons” away from the spiritually-abusive milieu.

  • The idea that demons cause mental illness is a throwback to Bronze Age ignorance. (Aristotle thought the brain was a blood coolant.) There are no demons, no angels…just us, people who need to use 21st Century scientific knowledge to help each other. Superstition just gets in the way.

  • Really? This is a thing? Oh wait, yes it is. A former supervisor of mine told me that all mental illness was a lack of faith in God. That if we, the mentally ill, weren’t so selfish we would see that.

    It’s been 9-years since that conversation but I still remember it clearly. How could an intelligent, highly respected woman believe that depression and anxiety disorders and addiction were just people being selfish? How?

    • You THINK your leg got amputated, but that’s really just your lack of faith in God. If you weren’t so selfish you would have a leg again.

      • Bwahahahaha – exactly! Ridiculous. But I’m pretty certain that that supervisor does not remember that conversation. I need to let it go. Oh she had lots of theories about faith and what was wrong with my life (no kids…oh man, don’t get me started on the decision not to have children…)

  • Your argument is really good. However, there is a way to integrate faith and science intelligently, and I have seen instances of faith-based counseling and mental illness and/or demonic influence resolve very well. There is a lot of literature coming out trying to establish standards for dealing with one, the other or both in faith circles that are perfectly reasonable. To say that the belief holds no water at all is synonymous with discarding cultural sicknesses and conditions as “mental illness”.

    When my dual condition was confirmed for me (long after it was resolved), it wasn’t dehumanizing…it was freeing. Already knowing I was mentally ill, I didn’t feel more stigmatized…but I have relieved to know that some of my symptomology wasn’t a result of my chemical illness, but of other influences that I had been able to detect myself. It gave me faith in my own perceptions, something that is important for mentally ill people (and as you know, mental illness has a wide spectrum and functionality). The mentally ill have the right to believe in spirituality too, even if the spirituality seems odd to others, as long as the spirituality is expressed in a healthy and well-adjusted way.

  • We don’t use bloodletting as a medical treatment anymore (except in very limited circumstances). We don’t believe illnesses come from breathing bad air. We don’t bore holes in one’s skull to cure headaches. We don’t send a man into the tallest tower in town to ring bells during a thunderstorm. And yet when it comes to people who act in mysterious, irrational ways or have odd mental functioning, we’re still totally ok with a thousand-year-old explanation and prescribed cure for what ails them.

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