Mental Illness and Demon Possession

by Rev. Alan Johnson

The shootings in Newtown have generated a fair amount of dialog about mental illness. Many people are talking about positive ways to address tough mental health issues:

  • How do we make sure people with mental illness get help when they are critically ill without violating their rights?
  • How do we reduce stigma so people with mental illnesses are not afraid to seek treatment?
  • How do we convince the general public that people with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violent acts than the perpetrators?

I am glad we are having these conversations.

At the same time, the shooting in Newtown have precipitated a few emails and articles that endorse the misguided belief that mental illness is caused by demon possession. What is the best way to respond to comments like that?

My friend Bill Gaventa, M.Div., has a good answer. Here’s what he says:

“Mental illness is not caused by demon possession. It can sometimes seem like other powers are in control or impacting a loved one, and the causes of mental illness are often not clearly traceable or understandable. But there is simply no evidence of mental illness being caused by demon possession. The same thing used to be said for all kinds of other illnesses, diagnoses that none of us would give today.

“One of the ways that citing mental illness as demon possession further wounds a person with mental illness and his or her family and friends is that the next step is often claiming that a lack of healing is a lack of faith on the part of the person or, sometimes even worse, on the part of the family. Anyone who asserts that must realize that if they could not cure someone by faith (of any disease or especially mental illness), that is also a judgment they have to make against themselves. Rather, individuals and families need the faithfulness of friends, extended family, professionals, and faith communities who can walk with them, support them, and prevent the kind of isolation and stigmatization that often accompanies mental illness.

More resources on mental illness, spirituality and religion, are available on our “Links” page.

Alan Johnson

Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

Chair of the Board of Directors

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

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