So what do Christians think when it comes to mental health issues? This is a difficult question to answer as there are so many views, some helpful and others very unhelpful, to the 25% of us who will suffer with mental health problems in our life time. That’s 1 in 4 and it doesn’t change just because we are people of faith.
We are whole people, not divided into mind, body and soul but integrated; therefore when we suffer with a mental health issue, not surprisingly it means every part of us will be affected. However a mental health problem is not the same as a spiritual health problem. In Jesus’ day, the division we see between mind and body in today’s society, did not exist. Jesus himself was totally holistic. When he is described as healing in Matthew 4:24 the people brought to him “ all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon possessed, those having seizures and the paralysed; and he healed them.”
“All who were ill” – mental and physical. It is interesting how mental illness has been equated with demon possession during periods of church history and is the view held by some today. Why? We have no evidence that demon possession manifests as mental illness, any more commonly than back pain! The Gadarene demoniacs are often quoted, yet the description of their behaviour is not equivalent to any modern mental illness.
However in the Psalms and in various other books in the bible, we see clear symptoms of depression. I like many others have suffered with depression, but mine was of a very severe nature. I have been hospitalised, given ECT, taken many different medications, have had years of psychotherapy and even brain surgery to get better. God has stepped in and healed me instantaneously and then 5 years later, I suffered again and this time my recovery was prolonged, but recover I did. How do I see the future?
I am not afraid of relapsing, even though my diagnosis is ‘recurrent depressive disorder’ though I will do all I can to prevent it. I take medication, manage stress and try and live a healthy lifestyle. I rejoice at God’s goodness that I am well, and even when circumstances aren’t great, I have a deep knowledge of God as Father, Jesus as my Lord and saviour, the Holy Spirit as my helper and the giver of gifts. But in the end, I believe that my sufferings have brought me closer to God, have matured me and that God through his grace, is able to use me to help bring an end to stigma surrounding mental health issues, both in the church and the wider world.
So how should the modern church be relating to those who have mental health issues. Firstly it is not catching! We can get close; infact being a friend is a good idea – we all need friends and who more than those who are ill. We can be bringers of hope, of encouragement, of cards and small gifts. We can be those who are faithful, who stick with it through thick and thin, through ups and downs, never sitting in judgement, always accepting, even though boundaries may need to be set and stuck with. Being ill is exhausting, but we also know that being a friend, spouse or family can also be exhausting. Those who care need to protect themselves by not promising the world and being unable to deliver, but by pacing themselves for the long haul. Those living with mental health conditions need good communication; there is a need to explain what you are doing, do it with them and not ‘for’ them.
More often than not people express the fact that ‘they don’t know what to say’. Just being there is what is important, listening is vital. You do not have to be the answer or provide answers. Too often, the misunderstanding Christian will suggest spiritual solutions – pray more, read the bible more or may even have the attitude that the affected person can ‘snap out of it’ or ‘pull themselves together’. If I could have done, I would have done and it would not have been a mental illness!
Do not worry about prescribed medication – it does not change the personality – only the illness does that; antidepressants are not addictive. They need to be taken on a regular basis for at least 6 weeks to see whether they are working or not and may need to be taken on a longer term basis to prevent relapse occurring, up to 6 months or a year. I have had 2 very long and serious bouts of depression and so I am on medication for life. I would rather I wasn’t but the risk of a relapse means it is not worth coming off it. There are often side effects, but the balance has to be made between the illness and the drugs – side effects often lessen with continued treatment, especially in the case of nausea. If your friend is on medication, encourage him/her to take it and to see the doctor if they want to stop.
Talking therapies can be as helpful as medication and if you cannot get an NHS appointment or you wish to find someone yourself, do use the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) or Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC) to find a practitioner. Your doctor will probably advocate CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) for depression and a number of other disorders. It is very useful and often ‘works’, but if you do not have access to this or have particular issues which relate to the past then alternative therapies are also valuable. In particular, your relationship with the therapist has a lot of influence on the outcome – it is worth being fully yourself and honest with them.
I have met numbers of Christians who feel uncomfortable at the thought of being so open to therapists or psychiatrists who are not themselves Christians. In my experience, it has made little difference and I have had encounters with quite a few different individuals. I have found the vast majority of psychiatrists I have seen to be really superb and not one of them was a Christian; a professional will not be concerned at your Christian beliefs if you want to express them. Hearing God can be easily distinguished from hallucinatory ‘voices’. In fact even if you are seeing a Christian therapist, it is wise to seek pastoral help if you want to pray over issues. I saw a wonderful therapist when I was living in Scotland and my husband Phil used to pray with me over things, such as forgiving people who had hurt me in the past. Though forgiveness, so important, is often an ongoing process and you may need an independent pastor/leader to pray with you.
Prayer for the person living with a mental health disorder can be a contentious issue. What I have come up against are Christians who want to pray in a ‘sticking plaster’ fashion. To explain this, I mean the person who uses prayer as the answer to all the problems and a prayer is often said in haste as a cure all, with the attitude ‘all will be well now I’ve prayed’. It is true that prayer is required but this can just as well be done at home in private or in groups, for the inflicted person. Towards the end of the 7 years of my first episode of depression, I dreaded prayer. I had been prayed for innumerable times and had taken every opportunity to receive prayer for healing, but I felt as if I was letting the person praying down, as I could not get better however hard they prayed and however much I tried. In the end a group of people who did not even know me got together specifically to pray for my healing along with my husband – he did not tell me at the time. When I had had the brain surgery, it was expected that I would take 9 months to a year to recover, if I was to be in the 50% who responded to the operation. Infact on day 8, I can describe an experience where a light switched on in my head and even though I didn’t realise it at first, that was when my depression lifted and I was healed. It was only afterwards that I found out about this prayer group and realised what God had done!
So only pray with the sick person with their permission and don’t be offended or think that they are a ‘bad’ Christian, lacking in faith if they say no. It is wise to be ready to tell the Christian sufferer that their illness is not their fault, because it isn’t. No one chooses to get ill but for the Christian, guilt is a common factor. I felt as if I was a bad Christian, unspiritual, that I had brought the depression on myself, that I lacked faith, that I had not done enough in my Christian life...........that’s typical ‘depression speak’. I remembered everything I had done wrong and very little of what I had done right in my life. I was plagued by dark thoughts and thought I was useless as a parent, as a wife and in my work as a doctor – though I didn’t work throughout the depression. I felt terrible, I was so low, I was dejected, I was helpless and hopeless. I didn’t think I deserved to live and my only way out seemed to be death. I attempted suicide on a number of occasions and self harmed dreadfully. I almost lost my life, but God preserved me thankfully. In the end I was kept in the Intensive Care Unit of the Psychiatric hospital I was sectioned to, until I had my surgery. Most people with mental illness do not get it so severely, but even in milder cases, it can be devastating and destroy self esteem, social and working lives, and church life. We do not want this, it is not our fault and we need constant reassurance that we are not to blame.
Sometimes our spiritual lives are really good, but faith in God can falter if the illness is long and unyielding. It may be difficult to read the bible because concentration is so poor and recordings of literature, (not just of the bible or spiritual books) or talks may be helpful. Good, fun activities are a must. Getting us out of our situations for coffee or walks or meals or to see a film should be as frequent as possible. ‘Pleasurable activities’ as these are called are part of the treatment for depression and to be distracted is a good thing. Laughter is healing for anyone and if a depressed person laughs, you may need to reassure them that you will not think that they are not depressed, just because they laughed! (A common misconception.)
There are some illnesses which can be ‘life long’ but there is always hope of improvement, always hope of recovery and always hope that God is good, a kind, loving Father and cares very much for each one of us individually.
In summary, Christians and non-Christians live with mental illness. It is helpful to befriend, listen and support sufferers with an ongoing, non-judgemental attitude. It is great to pray for them, but not to make superficial, ‘fix it’ prayers. It is good to be encouraging and sensitive and reassure them that they are not to blame. Talking therapies, medication and admission to hospital or involvement of a community mental health team can all be helpful. Talking about it reduces stigma.
If you want to know more I have written 2 books both:
--- Life After Darkness, 2006, Radcliffe
-- A Thorn In My Mind, 2012, Instant Apostle. Reviewied on this website
Phil, my husband studied at London School of Theology and is now a counsellor. Together we run seminars ‘Talking about Depression’. If you or your church/ organisation are interested, please get in touch. Further information is available on our website.