As a writer and advocate for people affected my mental illness, I’m excited to tell you about another contribution to our growing national conversation about mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a fitting time to increase our knowledge of mental illness. One of the ways we can grow in understanding is by discussing our own experiences and hearing others’ stories.
To that end, on Patheos this week, pastor, blogger, and former psychiatrist Adrian Warnock is hosting a broad conversation about mental health, including bloggers from across Patheos and beyond. Everyone is invited to contribute, either on your own blog or in the comments section here. At the end of the week, Adrian will collect quotes and links from a sample of the contributions and post them on Patheos.
You can read all about this conversation here. Please consider joining in and contributing your own answer to this week’s question (well, I guess technically it’s two questions): How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?
Here’s my answer, my contribution to the conversation:
My religious community is the evangelical American church. This community’s historical perspective on mental illness has been mixed. Some have seen mental illness as solely a spiritual problem, whose remedy is more faith, more prayer, or repentance from hidden or deeply entrenched sin. Others have assumed all mental illness is caused by demon possession or demonic influence and cause for exorcism. Some have seen it as cause for shame and silence, mostly a behavior problem that should be controlled or ignored. And still others have seen mental illness as just that–illness, a reason for compassion and treatment based in sound medicine and loving care.
In most cases, people in the evangelical church have stayed fairly quiet about mental illness. We have reflected the silence of the culture around us, which historically hasn’t had many beneficial things to say on a topic that seemed so unpleasant and so hopeless. At times we have reflected another aspect of our culture’s relationship to mental illness: speaking about it in ways that ridicule, romanticize, or reinforce frightening stereotypes about people with mental illness.
In my personal experience, the church has mostly chosen silence. When schizophrenia joined our family, this silence convinced me the church didn’t want to hear my difficult questions about why my gentle and Jesus-loving mother had become a different person. I was pretty sure the church didn’t have answers to those questions. And I figured that must mean God didn’t have much to say about it either.
But God didn’t let me stay in this place of shame and silence. And he didn’t let me languish forever with the misunderstanding that he and his church have nothing to say about mental illness. We have plenty to say, and we need to start saying it.
Now, my faith is my main motivator for speaking up about mental illness, sharing my family’s experience, and spreading a message of hope. My faith causes me to view mental illness as another tragic consequence of our open and ongoing rebellion against God–for which he has lovingly provided the remedy. I have great hope for people affected by mental illness. They have never had more hope for productive life than they do now. But I have a different kind of hope as well; I wrote about this hope in Troubled Minds:
This hope is not based in what the church can do or in the efforts of a few committed and hard-working individuals. It is based in the power and grace of Christ, who is always with us and who will not allow anything to separate us from his love. “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Rom 8:38).
This hope is also based in the comfort of God’s constant presence with us, even when we can’t feel him and when trouble threatens to overwhelm us. As Paul wrote,
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:8-10)
Our hope is rooted in our knowledge that something much better is on its way. For no matter how deep the darkness, how painful life can be in this decaying world, as children of God we can always look forward to the day when “our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength” (1 Cor 15:43).
© 2013 Amy Simpson.