I experience anxiety and depression at times. (Read here.) So did my mom. I’m almost sure that she could’ve recovered from her stroke if she managed it well. My aunt, mom’s older sister, took her own life a few years ago. So maybe it was something genetic. I could share more stories from friends and loved ones. Mental illness is close and personal to me. And I talk about it.
Let’s be honest that we all struggle at some level with our mental health. But not all of us have a chronic mental illness. Mental illness is a subset of physical illness caused by a sick brain. And like any other sickness, even at times the best combination of rest, sleep, laughter, and good friendship can’t do much to relieve the pain.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I want to rid the stigma around mental illness. I especially want to rid the notion that sisters and brothers who have mental illnesses are less faithful to God and are spiritually weak.
Not everyone who struggles with mental health has an illness. But everyone who has a mental illness struggles. And it’s important that when they do, we don’t hyper-spiritualize their condition and undermine their quality of faith.
A STORY ABOUT JOHNNY
Twelve years ago when I was starting out as a pastor I spent time with a young man that I’ll call Johnny who was in his early twenties. At the time Johnny was exhibiting some bizarre behaviour. At work he’d laugh to himself for no reason. He’d accuse his girlfriend of things she didn’t do. He was convinced there were strangers coming in and out of his house. Naturally his family became worried and so contacted our pastoral team to come pray for him. I actually knew Johnny since he was a kid so it was strange to see him that way.
On one of my visits Johnny told me he was 36 years old, married, and had six children that he needed to get back to because there were men out to get them. I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Johnny, I’ve known you since you were a little boy. You’re only 21, you’re not married, you don’t have six children, and there isn’t anyone out to get you!”
One of Johnny’s co-workers said his girlfriend had relatives who didn’t like him and that they had put a hex on him. Johnny’s family became concerned that he had become demon possessed. So they invited people over to pray, read Scripture, and sing songs to him. I was asked to spiritually care for him. And to be honest, I felt way out of my depth.
Now, I don’t know if you believe in this kind of stuff. I don’t blame you if you don’t. (But you have to admit you didn’t sleep alone for weeks after watching The Exorcist!) I’ve actually seen two cases of demon possession and I have a close friend who’s experienced it. But I’m no expert. Even still, I definitely knew Johnny wasn’t demon possessed.
A few months later Johnny became so violent that his family called the police on him. He was taken to a hospital where later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was prescribed Prolixin and after taking it for a while he eventually became his old self again. I learned something important as I walked with Johnny through some of this:
Just like you can’t medicate a demon, you can’t cast out mental illness.
DARKNESS IS NOT DARK
Kathryn Greene-McCreight is a priest at the Episcopal Church of Yale. She’s also diagnosed bipolar and authored an insightful book called, Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. In the book she journeys through her struggles with bipolar disorder, how the church has helped and hindered, and how she’s received treatment from those who aren’t particularly religious. Through her illness she grew in faith and love for Jesus. She paraphrases Psalm 139:12 and applies it to her new gained perspective about her illness,
Darkness is not dark to you. Even though I may feel that darkness is my only companion, to know that the darkness and the light are alike to you is great comfort. Spring should come soon.
Emerging from her struggles, Greene-McCreight prophetically writes to the Church,
Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being “down.” It is being cast to the very end of your tether and, quite frankly, being dropped. Likewise, mania is more than speeding mentally, more than euphoria, more than creative genius at work. The sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it. While God certainly can pick up the pieces and put them together in a new way, this can happen only if the depressed brain makes it through to see again life among the living. At the time of free fall such a possibility seems absolutely unimaginable. Christians who have not experienced either pole—the high of mania or the low of depression—must try to accept that this is the case, even if they cannot understand it.
There’s so much learning we need to do as the Church.
And the first step to learning more is to stop taking a genuine illness and hyper-spiritualizing it as weak faith or a lack of dependency on God.
HYPER-RELIGIOUS PEOPLE AND THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
There’s a message in the Church that says if you have enough faith then you won’t get sick and you won’t get poor. The vast majority of Christians don’t believe this caricature of the Gospel. Jesus never taught that. But it’s funny that some of us are still likely to think that if someone is sick – especially if they’re severely depressed, bi-polar, or schizophrenic – that they are less “spiritual” or that their quality of faith is in decline.
This way of thinking is just another version of the Prosperity Gospel.
Hyper-religious people will hyper-spiritualize health issues, especially mental illness. While I believe everything in life is spiritual, I don’t believe everything in life is miraculously cured by praying more and reading the Bible more. At times hyper-religious activity even induces more mental stress and unhealth.
I’ve known too many people where mental illness became the avenue through which they expressed and explored deep faith and genuine intimacy. Like all other adversity, mental illness is an opportunity for those with deep faith to exercise it and for those with shallow roots to grow deeper and stronger.
The Gospel says that in Christ, God displayed so much love for you that neither sin nor sickness can negate your value to him. In Jesus’ death, he took on your sin and sickness. And in Jesus’ resurrection, he’s bringing you hope and healing.
Christ is present in our sickness so that God can experience it for himself. So if in Christ God fully empathizes with our sickness, then why continue the stigma around mental illness?
In Christ, there is no good reason not to talk about mental illness. So let’s talk about it.