Faith and Mental Health: Beginning the Conversation

Scripture: Psalm 31:9-20

You may remember that back in January, we were supposed to have a guest preacher in worship, David Finnegan-Hosey, the author of a book called Christ on the Psych Ward.  The book is about his reflections on faith and mental illness, in particular as someone who has been hospitalized multiple times with bipolar disorder.  I was excited for David to come because I know mental illness is a subject that is near and dear to many of our hearts here at Arlington Temple, some of us because it is part of our own story, some of us because we’ve been affected by the struggle of a loved one.  It seemed like an important subject to address, and he seemed like the right person for the job.

We ended up getting snowed out that Sunday, so we never had a chance to hear from David, and so far rescheduling has not seemed to be a thing that has worked out.  But two good things that came out of it all were both seeing the interest in the subject, and even getting to hear more of your stories that I hadn’t before.  So I decided it was still time to talk about mental illness, whether or not we had a published author to get the conversation started.

I’ve thought a little bit about why I’ve never preached on the subject or tried to get this conversation going before.  It’s not because I didn’t think it was important, or something we should talk about in church.  I think, honestly, it’s because I didn’t feel like I was the right person to preach on something like this.  I’ve never been diagnosed with mental illness; neither have any of my close family members, and I don’t claim to be an expert in the subject.  I thought it would be much more powerful, and, perhaps, informative, to hear from someone like David Finnegan-Hosey.

But let me tell you what has been true for me.  I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but there have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if I should be.  I have sat in my doctor’s office during a season of depression that seemed to be going on longer than just a slump, and asking whether it was time to start thinking about medication.  This was about a year ago, so not that long; in the end, vitamin D supplements seemed to work for me, though of course that is not the answer for everyone, and though of course they are not magic and I’ve continued to struggle from time to time.  I’ve sat in my OB’s office, six weeks after giving birth, trying to figure out whether what I was feeling was just normal new parent anxiety or actual clinical postpartum anxiety.  I was helped by counseling during a particularly hard semester in seminary, and have looked into it since.

I tell you these things in an effort to be as honest as possible, and not to either claim a certain experience for the purpose of being able to tell a more powerful story, or to set myself too far apart from that experience.  One writer I like, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says that it’s the job of the preacher to say “I’ll go first,” and so I share my own real, if somewhat mundane, experience as a way of trying to make space to talk about these things.

Next week we’ll hear from one of our church members about his own struggle with mental illness, but what I want to do today is just to bring up some things that I think it’s helpful to keep in mind when talking about mental health and mental illness in church.  I may not say all the right things, here, or use all the right language, and that’s always something that makes me nervous when I’m talking about something that is both intensely personal to many people and also potentially fraught, but again, I hope this can be an imperfect opening to a bigger and ongoing conversation.

The first thing I want to do is to define our terms, namely mental health and mental illness, which I don’t mean as simple opposites.  Our state of mental health might be better or worse, and certainly change with time and circumstances – whether or not there is diagnosable mental illness involved.  Just like with physical health, it is possible that I might not be sick, but I also might not be healthy – I might have high blood pressure, for example, or be lacking in cardiovascular endurance. As I’ve already shared, I really don’t know where that line is where we start to call things mental illness.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells me that approximately 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year, which says to me that mental illness is not always permanent or chronic.[1]  Just like there are things I can do to help my physical health, like eat vegetables and get my steps in, there are things I can do to help my mental health, like get enough sleep and be intentional about taking my days off – but sometimes we just get sick, and it doesn’t have to do with anything we did or didn’t do, it just is.  And at that point no dietary change or yoga practice is going to change anything, and we need to call in doctors and sometimes drugs.

I also want to stress that mental illness, like physical illness, can mean a lot of different things.  We may hear a phrase like “mentally ill” and a certain image comes to mind – someone on the street talking to themselves, for example, or the latest perpetrator of some violent act in the news – though there are likely some misconceptions at work there, because not only are the vast majority of people with mental illness not violent, but most perpetrators of these high-profile acts are not diagnosed with mental illness.[2]  When we talk about mental illness that can include everything from depression and anxiety, both of which are extremely common in our country today, to things like bipolar, and PTSD, and schizophrenia, and plenty of other things.  The experience of any one of these diseases is not the same, and of course people with the same diagnosis may have very different experiences with that illness too.  When we get into the world of faith, people may also have very different experiences in that arena – whether it’s a strong sense of Jesus having pulled you through and saved you, or a time in your life when God seemed especially absent.

The truth is that these things are often hard to talk about, and not just in church.  I was thinking about this just the other day.  I’ve been thinking about resuming my search for a counselor, especially as I’m preparing for a new baby and the life transition that comes with that at the same time my dad’s health is declining.  I thought maybe I would ask for a recommendation in my neighborhood Facebook group.  I’m an enlightened person who doesn’t think there should be any stigma around these things, so why not?  Yet I found myself typing the question and then deleting it before I posted.  It just seemed like maybe TMI for this group of people, most of whom I don’t really know.  And yet I wouldn’t have hesitated to ask for a recommendation for a dermatologist.  We often don’t feel like we can talk openly about our mental health struggles – maybe simply because they are so personal, but also perhaps because we are afraid on some level of what people might think.

And if these things are hard to talk about outside of church, the unfortunate thing is that they are often even harder to talk about in church.  We may talk a good game about how church should be a place where we can come and bring our brokenness but often it’s a place where we feel some pressure to present a certain image of ourselves.  Some of us may come from faith backgrounds where mental illness is talked about in terms of sin and faith: if we just pray hard enough or have enough faith, it will go away.  And, you know, I don’t come from that kind of theological background, and I don’t believe that mental health is just a matter of faith, and I didn’t grow up believing that, and have never believed that – and yet still, last year, when I was wondering whether I was clinically depressed, I still found myself falling in to that trap sometimes, of feeling like I had plenty in my life to be thankful for, and so it was some sort of spiritual failure on my part that I couldn’t just count my blessings and be joyful.  Still, this is an important ground rule for any conversation around faith and mental health: mental illness is not a sin or a punishment or a matter of weak faith, in the same way that cancer is not.  It is a thing that sometimes happens to us.

So what does the Bible say about mental illness?  I think that’s actually a tricky question.  The short answer is nothing, explicitly, because like a lot of other things that might be pressing questions for us today, the people who wrote the Bible had no real concept of it.  That’s not to say mental illness didn’t exist, just that people in the Ancient Near East weren’t talking about it in those terms.  The Bible does describe people who might have been suffering from mental illness.  For example, in the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel, we read about King Saul, who seems to grow more and more paranoid as a young musician in his court named David rises in power.  We can imagine plenty of the psalms – including the one we read today – being written by someone with depression, who sees nothing but his enemies surrounding him and feels like God is far away.  But it’s probably not useful to try to go back into the story and diagnose anyone too specifically.

In the New Testament, one of the things Jesus often does is cast demons out of people.  One of the best-known stories of this variety is the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, told by Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Mark (5:1-20) describes a man who lives on the outskirts of society among the tombs, who had been bound with shackles and chains, but managed to break out of all of them.  “Night and day,” Mark writes, “he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.”  In the Bible, demons always recognize Jesus.  These demons beg Jesus to cast them into a herd of pigs nearby, which Jesus does, the pigs all run off a cliff, and when the townspeople gather, they see this formerly demon-possessed man “clothed and in his right mind.”

I’ve heard it said more than once, especially by people who don’t believe literally in demons today, that what people in Jesus’ time understood to be demon possession we would now understand as mental illness, and I’m sure if I encountered someone like this man today, that’s how I would categorize what was going on with him, too.  But I do think we need to be careful, because again, we can’t go back in the story to know what exactly was going on with this man, whether it was a matter of literal demons, or something we would now call mental illness, or something else.  I can imagine that for some people, the idea of one’s life being taken over by a negative force outside of oneself might be a helpful connection to draw – and other people might not love that connection between being suffering from mental illness and being demon-possessed, as if all that’s needed is a good exorcism.  So that’s probably one of those areas where we should listen first to people who have been there and how the text does or doesn’t help them understand their own experience, rather than trying to come to any hard and fast answers.

So what then can we say as people of faith, as the church, about mental illness?

For that I turn to some of the insights of an author named Sarah Griffith Lund, who wrote a book called Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church.  Sarah Griffith Lund is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and she grew up with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, and then later, an older brother who did as well.  She talks about asking questions, throughout her life, of where God was and is in it all.  Finally, she says, “Faith is not an anti-depressant.  It cannot be swallowed in order to rewire our brains for happiness.  Rather, faith allows us to accept the coexistence of God and suffering.  We do not have to choose between two realities, because if we did, God would have to go.  There is no way we could deny the existence of suffering.  I believe God exists in this messed-up world, and, in the moments of greatest pain, God is there to wipe away our tears.”[3]

David Finnegan-Hosey, likewise, talks about how the one Bible verse that kept coming to mind for him during his own stay in a psychiatric hospital was 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Can Jesus heal us?  Yes.  But often not in the way we think.  As Sarah Griffith Lund puts it, “No, God will not give my brother Scott a new, disease-free brain.  But Jesus watches over my brother and creates in him a clean heart.  The burden of suffering can be shared so that it’s not soul-crushing.”[4]

Our Christian faith tells us that none of us is defined or condemned by a diagnosis.  Jesus looks at people others don’t know what to do with and sees people who are beloved children of God, worthy of love, worthy of healing, worthy of community.  And I believe that as the church, as the Body of Christ, that’s how we are called to see each other as well – to help share each other’s pain, see each other’s gifts, and acknowledge the image of God that each one of us bears.

And that means making room for the different stories that each one of us brings – including the stories that are sometimes hard to talk about, including the stories where mental illness is a part.  We don’t need to pretend, here, not to be broken.  We don’t need to pretend to be satisfied with easy answers that don’t really seem to bear out.  We do need to listen, and pray for one another, and remind one another that we don’t need to be whole to be loved.

There is much more that could be said, and I hope it will.  I do hope it helps get things out in the open when it comes to faith and mental health and mental illness, and I hope the conversation can be ongoing.  I’ve had the opportunity to say this in a number of contexts recently, but I think it can’t be said enough: no matter your story, no matter your struggle, you are a beloved child of God, and no struggle, no diagnosis, no experience, no stigma has the last word on that.

 

[1] https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5154170/

[3] Blessed Are the Crazy, p. 75.

[4] Blessed Are the Crazy, p. 98.

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