Mental Illness and Christian Faith

Paula Salvosa Uncategorized Leave a Comment

In the Asian culture and society, the mental health issues are highly stigmatized. Sadly, the recent tragedies or what most people call the alarming trend of suicide committed by both university and secondary school students in Asia are all over the Internet. For instance, Japan, a nation known for a long tradition of suicide and a nation that has the highest suicide rate in the world, they even have a “Suicide Forest” which they have provided for people who choose to take away their own lives, mostly for the reason of family problems and mental illness. These incidents have startled those in the education, health, and youth sectors to act with urgency, but the church remains silent.

 

Overcoming Mental Ilness

Sadly, in our church culture, when people learn that you have mental illness, most would only say, “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.” I remember asking people for advice about how to properly deal with mental illness; most responses I received were split by both faith and “conviction”. Most of them would say that Scriptural prayer and Bible study groups could conquer mental illness. Thus, even though suicide is not always the end result of mental illness, I still believe that churches in Asia and in the Philippines should attempt to do more to prevent further increase in the suicide rates because the number of suicide cases in the Philippines alone is starting to get alarming.

As a church, we need not a new but a more Christlike approach toward mental illness. However, a question floats, “Why is this so uniquely difficult for us Christians?”

 

Churches’ Approach to Mental Ilness

Unfortunately, we are confronted by the tragic reality that most of us Christians are indeed unprepared to deal with mental illness, and by our actions as a whole; we most often deny that it is even real. Of course, we have performed all measures of preparations for any number of other forms of illness. For instance, if someone had come to our church with a broken leg, people would immediately recommend they go see a medical doctor. For virtually any other illness, we would all have said the same. Unfortunately, it is a common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness divergently. We immediately make assumptions that there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain. The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things; we are complex people—remarkably connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc. However, if we immediately dismiss the feasibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions would constitute spiritual abuse. This claim may sound powerful and pointed, but I believe them to be true.

Oftentimes, our churches are unprepared to journey with the suffering, like I was as a young preacher. This results in a rejected believer who is forced to deal with a toilsome burden on his own. The reality is that regardless of the situation, even in the most prepared church, mental illness can be deep, traumatic, and life-changing. Even if our churches discuss the issue and provide a concrete plan to address it with our own people, it still has the propensity of becoming a long road to healing and/or discerning how to handle the illness. Ministering to those battling and struggling with mental illness, and their family members, requires a tremendous amount of grace. With that being said, God’s people should be first in line in becoming the extension of God’s grace in these people’s lives.

 

The Reality

Mental illness is a reality. Of course, it is a result of the Fall and the sin that plays a crucial role in all of our lives. However, it also has a physical component which occasionally has to be dealt with physically, and this is my primary focus here. To turn a blind eye to the reality of mental illness impedes our ability as the church to have strong, intelligent, constructive conversations in discovering ways to come alongside those who are suffering and eventually offer hope. Churches and leaders must begin to offer hope.

 

Cyberbullying – Amalayer

I myself have experienced mental illness firsthand during my college years and most especially during that point of my life when I was being cyber bullied by the world. Would you believe that even in this season of my life, where I know I am saved and I know I have a relationship with the Lord, I’d still have panic attacks? Having mentioned that, I know I can give credence to the fact that spirituality can play a vital role in treating mental illness, by which I would like to call “soul care”, where one journeys with another in his/her distress, where someone will be there not to judge but to just be there and listen. Thus, my hope for churches in Asia and in the Philippines in particular is to progress in a revolutionary way of thinking and talking about mental illness. This proposes taking a holistic approach that deals with spiritual, emotional, physical and mental concerns. If we as a church want to break through in this area, we cannot continue with our atomistic way of approach toward mental illness. Hence, our churches should begin instituting programs or curriculums that would competently deal with mental illness. This would involve Biblical counseling, clinical medication, as well as prayer and Bible study groups. The church is at that point where it needs to splinter the silence and shatter the stigma and embark on transforming our church settings into biblical communities of healing.

But ultimately, for us to truly understand and be able to journey with the suffering, we all have to go back to the realization that the theology of mental illness begins at the cross of Christ. It is then that we get to have an in-depth understanding of how we can achieve and establish a Christlike approach toward mental illness in the church. It starts with a crucified God who is aware of our distress, who understands our struggle, and who is conscious of our estrangement. Despite the seeming magnetism and the popularity and promises of the prosperity Gospel, or perhaps the silent stigma of modern Christianity and of other religious movements, current trend in formal and Biblical theology offers hope for a reassessment of mental illness and, ultimately, a reevaluation of the nature of humanity.

 

You Are Never Alone

Now, if mentally ill people find themselves estranged—deserted by the community, society or church around them—in desolation and struggling with their God, maybe the Scriptural testimony and truth that we could all find comfort in is that in this estrangement we are, paradoxically, not alone. Most often we put too much value on the divinity of Christ and deem His humanity less significant. But when we begin to realize the beautiful revelation of the humanity of Jesus by which in the person of Christ, God has taken a seat with the estranged. Christ is, for the mentally ill people and for all of humanity, truly Immanuel—“God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).

Probably over the centuries and over the millennia, the Church has occasionally struggled to admit her members may be frail, weak and capable to suffer because we have not accepted a God who was frail and who suffered. We have always deemed God as Someone who was insusceptible to all of those forces in the universe which so frighten us and remind us of our vulnerability and our destitution. We have not fully comprehended our mysterious God who oftentimes works unconventionally thus submits to those terrifying forces in order ultimately to precipitate their full transformation in relationship to Him. Our human desire to be “like God” (Genesis 3:5) may include even this unmoved God of our own pattern, a God supernaturally disconnected from the afflictions of this world. Oftentimes, we have failed to recognize God’s strength in weakness. As a result, in our misunderstanding of our own God, we also misconstrue ourselves. Yet it is only at the foot of the cross that we encounter again this revolutionary truth, that it was not just God’s power that saved us; it was also His frailty.

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