When Prayer Is Worse Than Useless

I recently yelled at a street preacher.

This isn’t exactly out of character for me, but it’s something I’ve been trying to avoid doing. {1}

This time, however…

It wasn’t the generic evangelical message of salvation that tipped me over the edge.

The preacher began talking about a young girl he’d briefly met while doing some mission work. The preacher said he’d taken the time to listen to and pray with her, after which she told him how she’d felt hopeless and had been having suicidal thoughts.

"Good," I thought. "He listened to her concerns, and she felt heard. Good on him."

"And then," he said, "I prayed with her again, and that demon of depression and suicide was cast out of her."

That’s when I lost it.

I am no stranger to suicide. From keeping a girlfriend from killing herself when I was fifteen, writing about my own suicidal gesture and how it was ridiculed while I was in the Army, the difficulties of talking about it when you’re actively feeling suicidal, and the difficulties of getting mental healthcare in the United States (which have only gotten worse), it has featured entirely too much in my life.

Helping someone who is feeling depressed or suicidal is not a one-time intervention. It is not a matter of just "casting out" the bad feelings (or "demon"). If you do not address the reason why the person is feeling suicidal — no matter how much you don’t understand it — then you are only slapping a bandage on it for your benefit, not theirs.

He had been so close. That young woman had felt like someone had finally listened, that someone had finally heard her concerns and took her seriously. That is the first and most important step.

But as far as he was concerned, her problem was solved. He "cast out a demon," and considered her cured. That was the end of the story, the end of his interaction with that young woman.

That young woman had finally found someone who would listen to her, had finally found some glimmer of hope… and then was promptly abandoned right back into the situation she’d been in.

That Christian idea {2}, particularly prevalent among evangelical circles (48% of them), that mental health problems are a failing of faith rather than a response to, say, the state of the world around them or a biological issue, actively harms those suffering from mental health issues.

That belief denies the reality of a person’s experience in the world, snatches away hope, and denies them the possibility of having a healthier and happier life.

How that reflects the followings of Jesus of Nazareth, I cannot understand.

{1} It’s literally counter-productive. It attracts attention for them and increases their rigidity and adherence to the group.
{2} Not universally held among faith traditions, YMMV.

Featured Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay