How Martin Luther Approached Mental Health Issues

May 28, 2024 Stephen Saunders

While increasing mental health awareness might seem newfangled, the topic of mental health was addressed by our own church fathers, including Martin Luther. As you seek to extend Christian love to your neighbors, consider what Luther has to say about how to support people who are struggling with mental health issues.  

This blog post is adapted from Martin Luther on Mental Health Practical Advice for Christians Today.

On Depression

Prince Joachim of Anhalt had a serious and persistent depression. His distress was compounded by his incorrect idea that enjoying life was sinful. Luther wrote on May 23, 1534, and warned the prince against thinking incorrectly.

Luther directly confronted the errors of the way the prince was thinking. A month later, he wrote again to point out the erroneous way that the prince was thinking, using examples from the Bible. Luther normalized enjoyment of life and of music in particular to confront the anxiety-provoking way Joachim thought about enjoying life. Luther strove to normalize the joy experienced by socializing with others and having fun. …

Luther educated. He corrected incorrect thinking about recovery and normalized that recovery can be slow. All persons with depression and anxiety think that their recovery is taking too long, and it is certainly true that recovery from a painful illness always takes too long. But Luther argued against another thought common to depression and anxiety, which is that recovery will never happen. Luther used his own experiences to emphasize how he knew that slow recovery is normal. …

Mental health problems are experienced as odd and shameful, especially since they are not talked about openly. Those suffering from mental health problems believe themselves different. To normalize mental health problems, empathize with people in their distress. Talk about and name what they are experiencing, then express directly that there is nothing unusual about the experience of mental health problems.

Depersonalizing Depression

Most know that Luther turned from his intention to study law because of a terrifying thunderstorm. Apparently he convinced Hieronymus (Jerome) Weller to do the same, presumably not using the same method. At Wittenberg, Weller gave up the study of law to study theology. Luther invited Weller to stay in his home, where Weller tutored Luther’s children. Weller was shy and depressed. In July 1530, he wrote Weller at the Luther residence. In the letter, Luther depersonalized depression. He attributed negative, depression-causing thoughts as being due to the corruption of the devil. …

Luther also advised acceptance of tormenting thoughts, if necessary, but simultaneously ignoring them for being despicable and foolish. He advised against entering a disputation with evil, erroneous, anxiety- and depression-inducing thinking. …

Depersonalization is making foreign something afflicting us. It entails pushing something outside of oneself, as if it were not part of us and had been foisted upon us. If something is not part of us, it is easier to recognize it as alien, challenge it, despise it (as Luther would say), and defeat it. This is obvious with some medical illnesses. We can easily conceptualize how a cancerous tumor is attacking us or how a virus is invading us. This is harder to do with mental health problems because our thoughts and emotions are uniquely our own. Mental health professionals encourage persons with depression and anxiety to realize, “This depression is not you!” Luther depersonalized by referring to depressing thoughts as the evil work of Satan assailing someone. …

Acceptance is the opposite of resistance. It means accepting that one is prone to incorrect thinking. Once a person realizes this, he or she can contest and struggle against the thoughts. Acceptance can happen only after the person is confronted by the errors of his or her thinking. It might be difficult, and it will likely take time. Negative thoughts cause depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems, but human nature is arrogant. It is hard to accept that what we “know” is wrong, even when that knowledge (such as, “I am unlovable”) causes emotional distress. Thus acceptance is easier for someone when confrontation is done with gentleness. Acceptance can be encouraged by pointing out that erroneous thinking is inevitable. Mental health professionals utilize the strategies Luther utilized: normalization and depersonalization. …

Normalizing Mental Health

Society takes a negative, stigmatizing view of those with mental illness. We do not often talk about mental health problems, and most people experience a general lack of familiarity with them. When someone experiences or develops depression, anxiety, or another mental health problem, he or she might think, I only am like this. I am different. I am wrong. None can understand me.

Apparently this type of thinking was also true in Luther’s day. Luther often reassured persons in emotional distress that they are not alone. Indeed, he assured them that he himself had suffered as they suffer.

Blog post adapted from Martin Luther on Mental Health: Practical Advice for Christians Today copyright © 2023 Stephen M. Saunders. Published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. 

Martin Luther on Mental Health: Practical Advice for Christians TodayIn Martin Luther on Mental Health, Dr. Stephen M. Saunders compares Martin Luther’s advice on mental health to modern treatment as a resource to support people who are struggling with mental health issues.

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