"Jesus Fixes Everything": Faith, War, Mental Health and PTSD

The Daily Dish pointed to an interesting article in the Boston Review by Tara McKelvey. The article is entitled God, the Army, and PTSD: Is religion an obstacle to treatment? and it discusses the effect of war upon faith and how faith affects the treatment of those suffering from the psychological consequences of war.

As you might expect, war can dramatically affect faith. McKelvey discusses a recent study of faith and Vietnam vets:

In a 2004 study of approximately 1,400 Vietnam veterans, almost 90 percent Christian, researchers at Yale found that nearly one-third said the war had shaken their faith in God and that their religion no longer provided comfort for them. The Yale study found that these soldiers were more likely than others to seek mental health treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) when they came home. It was not that these veterans had unusually high confidence in government or especially good information about services at VA hospitals. Instead, they had fallen into a spiritual abyss and were desperate to find a way out. The trauma of war seems to be especially acute for men and women whose faith in a benevolent God is challenged by the carnage they have witnessed.
Unfortunately for veterans of our Gulf Wars, McKelvey reports that faith has gotten in the way of veterans receiving proper mental health treatment:
During the Iraq war, however, the great difficulty veterans experienced in getting psychiatric care—greater than before—was not a product of cost-cutting, but of conviction: many Bush administration officials believed that soldiers who supported the war would not face psychological problems, and if they did, they would find comfort in faith. In a resigned tone, one prominent researcher who worked for the VA, and asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, explained that high-ranking officials believed that “Jesus fixes everything.”
As you might expect, as a Christian psychologist, I wrestle with issues like this all the time. What is the relationship between faith and mental health? Can mental health issues be treated effectively with prayer, bible study and the spiritual disciplines? If you are a Christian are you, via your relationship with Jesus, more immune to mental illness? And, if you do experience mental health symptoms, is that a sign of a lack of faith?

First, I do think there is a connection between faith and mental health. The research bears this out. Faith, we all know, can be a great resource in dealing with loss, stress or trauma.

And yet, the correlation isn't perfect. And it's a weak association at best. Being a Christian doesn't grant you immunity. More, as McKelvey's article points out, the relationship between faith and mental health is interactive. Faith can support us in times of stress and trauma. But times of stress and trauma can also undermine faith. Given the interactive nature involved it would be silly to tell people to rely on faith to get them through tough times when those tough times are making belief very, very difficult. Your cure is actually a symptom of the disease.

I'm also not surprised at the "Jesus fixes everything" sentiment. It is widespread in many sectors of Christianity. Many churches are very suspicious of psychology. To these churches, psychology embodies the values of secular humanism, the very values these churches believe are destroying the world. You don't need to go to a therapist. You need to go to church. In fact, I've had bible faculty at my school look at my psychology majors and question their faith and career choice. So it is not surprising to me at all to hear about Christians in the Bush administration expressing similar sentiments.

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6 thoughts on “"Jesus Fixes Everything": Faith, War, Mental Health and PTSD”

  1. I have a fundamentaist book, "Psychology's Long War Against God". I hate the premise, because it makes people who have right reason to be traumatized, judged as lacking faith, etc.

    My son just went into the military for his basic training and this is my concern for him. War is never something that one delights in, but it is something that is necessary at times. The problem is that civilians don't get to choose the wars that America engages in, but we are called to support the people that join the military, if we believe in a Constitutional government and the boundaries that define nation-states.

  2. Richard,

    I think this post correlates well with your series on Freud and James. As I read the entire article from which you quote here, it seemed pretty clear with the reference to The Purpose-Driven Life throughout that the version of Christianity they are espousing seems to be a triumphalism that is a "healthy-minded" approach to faith. It is about comfort and easing death anxiety, etc. I wonder, because there is no way to get actual statistics, what percentage of "sick soul" Christians would experience the more acute trauma, as the article states, "for men and women whose faith in a benevolent God is challenged by the carnage they have witnessed." The "sick soul" would not be expecting God to protect him/her from the trauma of war or necessarily see war and trauma as some part of God's plan for the world. She/he would not see Jesus as "fixing everything" and might be more open to psychological treatment.

  3. Beyond the thinking that faith should prevent mental illness due to trauma or other circumstance - that Jesus would fix it - what about mental illness caused by something tangible in the brain chemistry? What about something as common as depression? As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamental religious tradition, I can remember hearing powerful church people saying that anyone who was depressed just didn't know Jesus. I spent a lot of years worrying that my OCD should be fixed by Jesus. I thought if I really loved Him, or prayed the right way about it, or just believed a little harder, then this sinful time waster would disappear. I know it isn't the kind of mental illness you're talking about, but it sure struck a chord. It's a tricky issue.

  4. Amanda,
    It amazes me the number of people on drugs for depression. I wonder why the increase. Is it because of more depression, of scientific awareness, or freedom from religious shame?

  5. This site can help:


    It doesn't pretent that life is one big party!

  6. I don't believe faith can fix anything, but I do believe that Jesus had dozens of psychological insights. The characters in his parables often show personality disorders, similar to those treated by psychologists.
    This is the main conclusion of my recent book, Jesus was a psychologist. It's available through my website, www.wesleyschair.com. David hines

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