Apologies for the essay-like title, but I am writing this post in response to Adrian Warnock’s posts on Patheos (“A conversation about faith and mental illness” and “How has faith shaped our view of mental illness?”) He asks a question, in the light of the publishing of Amy Simpson’s book Troubled Minds and the suicide of Matthew Warren. His question is:
How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? – And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?
My religious community would be, I suppose, the Anglican church of which I am now a member. I am aware of the leadership of the church writing, reflecting and seeking to support the mentally ill, that there are books, sermons and so on that have been preached about mental ill-health. On the ground I am also aware of prayers for those who are depressed, certainly, appearing in our weekly pew sheet. I would say that the Church of England as a whole is supportive, although they reflect the wider culture in that mental illness is not often mentioned at all, and I have no real idea what individual church members would have to say about mental illness. While I would like to “come out” as being bipolar, I have so far been too scared of possible negative reactions to it to actually speak out. I’m probably worrying about nothing, but the reactions I have sometimes had from secular friends and employers have not filled me with confidence, and I worry that, should I lose the respect or friendship of those who I know in church, it might damage my faith. Certainly, when a priest of ours was ill with depression, her illness was not often named, and when it was, it was in hushed tones more appropriate to some unpleasant or embarrassing disease. I will tell all, when it is appropriate – for me, that means when I feel able to tell our vicar, because he alone does need to know, because I am exploring a possible call to ordination with him, and that is something he – and others – will have to consider when discerning my future.
So, on the first part of this question I think that my denomination itself is quite supportive, but not visibly so on a local level – I don’t know how many churches really do go out of their way to address mental health, particularly issues of depression and anxiety, which are more common, and will certainly affect some of the church congregation at some point. The Baptist church I attended previously to this one was very mental health-friendly, because the majority of our congregation came from the mental hospital nearby (as indeed did I) and it is my belief that services were structured, particularly when I first attended, to help with the needs of people who were unwell (such as having impaired concentration, and a simple liturgy I know helped me when I was in the darkest depression, rather than the more freeform worship we had later on.)
How does my faith shape the way I see mental illness?
My understanding of the more technical aspects of mental illness is quite limited – I am a sufferer, but not an especially well-read one, and sometimes other sufferers talk about things I have never encountered, such as the recovery model. I probably hold to an overly simplistic view of mental illness, which is that it is largely a medical problem, caused by biological factors, and which, in part, can be treated by medication. I assiduously take my medication, and always have done, and it is that, I believe, which has meant that my episodes of illness have never again been as bad as the first episode I had.
That said, I do think that there can be a spiritual element to illness – that a spiritual sickness can manifest itself in depression-like symptoms, that guilt can be mistaken for a mental health problem. I believe that Jesus’ encounter with demoniacs shows that some symptoms we might assume were mental health related (such as the self harm, shouting, clearly disturbed behaviour of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5) were actually caused by demons – that said I don’t think that demonic influence should be our first assumption. Just as some people had spirits of deafness, muteness and being crippled does not mean that we assume all people who are deaf, mute or crippled* have demons, neither do I think that we should assume the mentally ill are possessed either.
My personal belief is that an anti-depressant used to mask symptoms of spiritual sin/sickness will be ineffective in the long term, that the issue which is causing the sickness, the sin, will continue to make the person sick until it is dealt with. I see that as being similar to problems helped by therapy – if there is a poison, an unresolved problem which has not been helped in a person’s life, then that problem will continue to affect that person until something is done to help. If it is a sin, then repentance, if it is harmful memories, for instance, then working them through with a therapist/counsellor would, I think, be helpful. I have received some counselling for anxiety problems which has helped me understand my own illness better (they now tell me I have “good insight”) and I can see that being helpful for others.
I do think that mental illness is caused by sin – but not the personal sin of the sufferer. I think that mental illness is a problem for a sin-broken world, for the world post-Fall, a world in which diseases are visited on the innocent, where people suffer and should not, a world which is coming to an end. I think it is deeply hurtful and damaging when Christians accuse people who are depressed, bipolar, schizophrenic or who have any of the other varieties of mental illness of being more sinful than other people, of being the cause of their own affliction. It is similar to the way that the world says that a depressed person, for instance, is lazy, and just needs to “pull themselves together” – there is a reluctance to acknowledge that mental problems can descend on a person who has done nothing to deserve them, and who can do little besides comply with treatment to make themselves better.
For me personally, my faith has helped me make sense of my illness, but has also caused me some struggles. Trying to figure out “why” and ending up having to say that I don’t know why I was given this, why I have suffered and the personal difficulties with things like employment that it has brought were given to me. I read the Bible and am comforted that other people faced the same question, and the book of Job has given me a great deal of help. I think that I cannot say “God gave me bipolar because X” – it is simply not something I can know at this time. What illness has done for me is make me more reliant on God, realising that I simply have to trust him, that I have to take that step of faith, or else reject him. It was in the depths of the most awful depression I have ever experienced that I found my faith, that, when all else was gone, there was something in me that reached out. I did not receive instant healing – I don’t, to be honest, know that I even expected it, but I have found a faith that has lasted these ten years, with few major troubles or problems with faith since then. I am sensitive, even over-sensitive, to questions of healing, and have some reservations about charismatics/pentecostal brothers and sisters because of it. I have heard (online more than in person) too much about claims of instant healing for every illness, which, when they do not happen, are then said to be the fault of the sufferer. I am very wary of claims that God will do, must do, what any human tells him, but I don’t know that I would be quite so wary of that side of the church if I didn’t have an incurable illness myself.
In some ways I feel like having my weakness, my bipolar, has made me more than I was before, and while I have lost a great deal, I do also feel like I have gained some things. More concern for others, a stronger and a more considered faith than before are two of those things. I also treasure times when I am well, such as at the moment, all the more because I have experienced illness.
If there is one thing above all that my faith says to my illness it is trust : trust in God, trust in his plans and his purpose. There is no “knowing” – just faith. For so long I wanted faith and couldn’t make it come, but when my depression robbed me of everything I had, then there was faith. For me, faith and mental illness are twisted together, and that is why, on this blog, I write entirely on the two topics.
This has gone on a bit too long, I think, longer than a normal post, but I hope it is somewhat interesting to someone.
*apologies for the use of the term “crippled” – I am not sure what to write instead.