Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mental Illness: Of Prayers and Polls

Last week was the first time I read about Lifeway Research's new poll which stated that 35% of Americans and 48% of Evangelical Christians believe that "With prayer and Bible study ALONE, people with serious mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia can overcome mental illness." I admit that when I first saw those numbers, I felt like I'd been punched in the gut and all my work here was for nothing.

Fortunately, my reason quickly took over and I dug into the poll a little deeper. I didn't find much here to give me confidence in the results which is, I think, a good thing. Let's break this poll down:

First, let's look at how the statement is phrased. What did Lifeway mean by the term "overcome" and did the respondents define the word in the same way? In this sentence, "overcome" does not necessarily mean the same thing as "cure." It could mean "control" or "cope." Christians talk about overcoming the devil or temptation as a daily struggle so the respondents could mean that prayer and Bible study are enough to help mentally ill people cope with their mental illness. That's still troubling but it's nowhere near as bad as thinking that prayer can cure a mental illness.

Second, let's look at how they conducted the survey. They spent 4 days calling 1001 people. That's our sample size - 1001 out of 330,000,000 Americans. Lifeway says that "Responses were weighted by age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, region, and CBSA market size." That's nice, I suppose, but it doesn't instill any confidence about the results. They state they have 95% confidence in the sampling but I don't understand how they come to that conclusion. Perhaps I need more instruction in scientific polling or perhaps this whole thing is load of dung.

Third, let's look at who comprises the Lifeway Research team and what their motivations are:

1. The first listed member is Ed Seltzer. His degrees and experience are in theology so I doubt he is qualified to create scientific polls. 

2. The second listed member is Scott McConnell. His degree is in economics and marketing so he should know how this stuff works. As a marketer, however, we must always be skeptical of what's trying to be promoted.

3. The third listed member is Lizette Beard. Her degrees are theological so, again, I doubt she's qualified to create scientific polls.

4. The fourth listed member is Daniel Price. His degree is in statistics so that's another plus.

So only half the Lifeway Research team is academically educated and trained in how to conduct proper polls. That's not damning in and of itself but we should remain skeptical about their motivations and reliability until we have more information. I tried to find some objective information on Lifeway but, unfortunately, most of what I found was from the Lifeway team itself. They think they are reliable but I'm not convinced - especially when their mission is to "assist[ing] and equip[ping] church leaders with insight and advice that will lead to greater levels of church health and effectiveness." In other words, they want to pack the pews, not necessarily produce accurate results.

Let me clear here: I'm not accusing these people of lying (although it's always possible). I'm questioning their motives and qualifications. I'm questioning their methodology. And I'm certainly questioning their results.

Even though America is a breeding ground for stupidity, I am highly skeptical that so many Americans or even Christians believe that prayer and Bible study alone will cure mental illness. They may believe it's a great way to cope with it but I do not think they believe it will cure it outright. I blame the vagueness of the wording for that.

But let's assume for a minute that their results are 100% correct (which they may be - I may not know what I'm talking about). I am living proof that those people are wrong. Prayer and Bible study fed my condition - it did not "overcome" it in any sense of the word. To think that so many people believe I could just "Jesus" my way out of my illness is frightening and sickening. So I admit my bias...that I do not wish to believe that so many can be so wrong. 

So where do we go from here? Even if the real numbers are much lower than 35%/48%, there are still people out there who do believe that the right religion is a cure for mental illness (and this is often because they think mental illness is a disease of the spirit and not the mind). As long as their are people out their who labor under this misinformation, we must continue to speak out and educate. Whether it's 35% or 3.5%, we've got to push back. I think we're doing a pretty good job of it but we still have work to do. What we don't need are prayers and polls.