A response to the Patheos conversation on Christianity and mental illness, question 1:
How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? – And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?
My background is the Evangelical tradition, so however far from it I may be at the moment (being an Anglo-Catholic), it is probably the tradition I am best able to speak out of and address. As someone who grew up suffering from some Frankensteinian hybrid of OCD and depression, and as someone who had family members who were also suffering from depression, OCD etc., I can say that, in my experience, there really was no place for people with mental illness. To be sure, if we had perhaps been more candid about it we may have found some comfort – I don’t know. But in some ways this highlights exactly the problem that has been typical in Evangelical churches. It is only in extreme situations that they actually go out of their way to say something against mental illness or against talking about it; no, the most damaging thing, at least when I was growing up, was what was not said. What was not said is that not all problems can be fixed by a spiritual high, or a neat testimony. What was not said is that some problems are as physical – biochemical – as they are spiritual. What was really not said was that it was okay to be in pain. It was of course okay provided you could reflect positively on it in retrospect – things were bad until God the deus ex machina leapt in and made everything better. But chronic suffering was not okay.
Now, it would seem, things are changing. Talking about mental illness among formerly repressed Evangelicals is now all the rage. Like our secular society beside us, we presume the way to do this is to do lots of talking – have lots of awareness etc. And neither talking nor awareness are bad things per se. But they become bad when they become a way of making us feel good about ourselves rather than actually doing something. As we know from the book of James, talk can be very hollow indeed. I suppose the question for me is whether all this talk will translate into substance. That Christianity has the resources to do this I have no doubt; whether Evangelicals wishing for further discussion and awareness are willing to pay the price of becoming Christ’s instruments of grace for those with mental illness is a question that will only be answered by their actions; by their fruit we will know them.
This may sound harsh, but I say this because, if Evangelicals have become willing to talk about mental illness rather than stay silent, they have I think been less willing to give up their wedding to simplistic fixes for things. It seems, for instance, that in many instances, the former quick spiritual fix for something like depression – you just need to have more faith etc. – has merely been replaced by a quick medical fix – you just need to see a doctor. This is of course not unique to Evangelical Christians – the majority of secular “awareness” types are also addicted to a fairy tale ending for mental illness, and we can see this “redemption story” in Obama’s speech for Mental Health Month, quoted in the original call for the Patheos forum. In the past, so the story goes – those nefarious dark ages – we never used to talk about these things. But if people will just come out and talk about them they will be cured by doctors and everything will end happily ever after. In many ways we – both secular and Christian – seem to think it is necessary to offer a unified insistence that things will turn out all right in a this worldly sense. But what about when they don’t, when medication doesn’t work, when there is an incompatibility between patient and counselor, when side effects become nearly as problematic as the illness itself? And what about those instances in which there is only a partial fix? Or those instances where other complicating factors such as homelessness and substance abuse combine and send someone into the cyclical pattern of being in and out of the hospital again and again, always caught between a world that cannot fully “fix” them and another world that doesn’t bother to love them? What then? It is perhaps a lovely middle class dream to be able to send our mentally ill of to the doctors who will “fix” them and send them back good as new, like repaired cars. But it does not always work this way. And I do not think it fair to tell half-truths about the help on offer just so more people will seek it; indeed, setting people up for a happy ending that may not be as simple as proposed is a good way to make patients already suspicious of doctors twice as unlikely to return. I had a friend who once sought help for her mental illness at the diversity office of a certain institution. Seemingly, this institution could afford large glossy signs featuring troubled youth with depression-filled thought bubbles around their heads; the implication was that these invisible problems could become visible and helped if you went to the diversity office. She went. And found no help.
So this is the question I really want to put to the Evangelicals so ostensibly interested in raising awareness about mental health issues. By all means talk about mental illness. By all means encourage sufferers in their faith. By all means send them to doctors. But if none of these things “works” in the simplistic sense you were expecting, are you willing to stick with them in their suffering? Are you willing to let a part of yourself die with them? Because it might cost you that. You might end up like Mary, a sword piercing your own soul as you weep over a person you deeply love contorted in pain you cannot imagine let alone fix. And you may find yourself crying out with Christ, with the person you so deeply love so deeply in pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us.” For this too is a prayer of the church.
Put another way, I think at bottom the problem is not just with awareness but with the Evangelical theology (or non-theology) of the cross. Are we going, like we used to do in our city-wide Evangelical service, acknowledge, if somewhat uncomfortably, that yes we maybe have to talk about the cross, but then skip as fast as possible to a triumphalist read on the resurrection? Or are we going to do what Christians in fact do, which is stay by the person on the cross even when it seems all bets are off and we would do better to abandon that person for something or someone more cheerful?
Even for myself, I have a hard time answering these questions. I will with all my heart to be such a Christian, and hope there are times when I have shown such grace. But I pray for the future in the knowledge that this is something I can never do by myself. I need, and need daily, the grace of the Christ who knows what it is to suffer the full extent of suffering, the God who knows what it is to feel the pain of watching the person you love most die an excruciating death – the God with whom creation mourns, the God for whom such an act merits the ragged tearing of the temple curtain as one in mourning might tear his clothes. I need this as I daresay will anyone who is going to take on the task of caring – that is, really caring – about those who suffer from mental illness.
Such caring involves, I suggest, looking among us for the faces of the crucified, for it is in these faces that we will see Christ. This means not just talking, but doing. For instance, spend some time volunteering in some capacity where you will actually meet real people with mental illnesses, though it need not be formal. I have no doubt that all about you there are people suffering invisibly. Pray, and look for them. Seek and you will find. Watch for the ones on the margins, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones that nobody else is talking to. Watch for the popular ones hiding their deep sadness under the paint of superfluity. Watch even for the experts, even those who would seem to have far surpassed you in their knowledge of this kind of love. For these people suffer too, and sometimes the worst; it is so easy to forget that those best at loving and caring, with a seeming artfulness and ease, are also in need of love – at times starved for it. Love the foolish. Love even the wise. But, you will say, not all these people necessarily have mental illness. Yes, but it is certain you will never know which ones do until you begin to see them. Before we can start loving people with mental illness, we need to start loving people. And in order to love people, we are in most desperate need of the cross of Christ.