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.