Mental health is a real thing.
It’s not something lazy people have made up so they don’t have to go to work or get out of bed.
Neither is it something that “crazy” people have, that “normal” people don’t. If you have a brain, then mental health affects you.
Ever felt poorly?
We all know that our bodies are truly amazing in their complexity: their ability to process food into energy, to grow and develop, to get us where we want to go, to heal themselves. But we also know that things can go wrong; whether it be a sore throat, a broken leg, diabetes or lung cancer, we are well aware that our bodies are imperfect and vulnerable.
Before the development of modern medicine, people used to attribute physical illness to all sorts of things, and believed in “cures” that today we know to be counter-productive and harmful. A well-known example is blood-letting: for thousands of years people believed that the cause of many, if not most illnesses were caused by “bad blood”, and therefore could be cured by cutting a vein and letting blood drain out. Sometimes leeches were used to suck the blood out. Another delightful example is the practice of “corpse medicine” – the firm belief held for hundreds of years that by consuming the flesh or blood of a recently deceased person, you were gaining some of that person’s “spirit” and “vitality”, and in doing so improving your own health.
With the benefit of hindsight and the wonders of medical science we now see these practices as being harmful and barbaric.
Our minds get poorly too, it’s part of being human
As medical research continues and our knowledge expands, we are beginning to understand a little more of how our brains work. There are now many widely recognised mental disorders that are diagnosed and treated by health professionals. Until surprisingly recently these same disorders would have resulted in institutionalisation; the stereotypical image of a padded cell and a straight jacket were a reality for many. The controversial practice of lobotomy (drilling through the skull and scraping away a piece of the brain) was common practice for much of the Twentieth Century, certainly into the 1960s and possibly even as late as the 1980s. We now view this with incredulity – not dissimilar to how we view the practices of blood-letting and “corpse medicine”.
Mental health is still a very grey area and there is an awful lot we have left still to learn. But if the history of medicine is anything to go by, the fact that we don’t completely understand something doesn’t mean it does not exist or should not be taken seriously. Medical science has identified a wide variety of mental disorders caused by a combination of genetic, biological, physiological and environmental factors, that cause people a great deal of suffering. As with other medical conditions these vary in severity and cause a range of different symptoms. Mental health disorders include stress, anxiety, substance abuse and addictions, phobias, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and depression, psychosis and personality disorders. None of us have perfect physical health; we all get ill from time to time – whether it be with a cold, a sprained ankle or coronary heart disease. In the same way, our mental health fluctuates and impacts our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Some will be affected by stress or anxiety, others will feel trapped by obsessive behaviour or addiction and some will have more serious, longterm conditions.
What about from a Christian perspective?
As a Christian, I believe that in some mysterious way God wants to heal us and make us whole – spiritually, physically and mentally. We live in a world full of suffering and brokenness; we ourselves are broken and vulnerable, made in God’s image but somehow incomplete or clouded with our human messiness. But we also have this incredible belief that God loves this world enough to want to restore it. And restore us. We have this hope that one day, somehow, everything will be made right, and in the meantime the Holy Spirit compels us to bring healing, hope and restoration wherever we find brokenness. Healing comes in all sorts of forms, often not in the way we would expect. Of course we don’t fully understand it, we never will, and I think that’s OK. But I am convinced that God wants to bring people healing and freedom in this life, not just assurance for the next.
I am fairly certain that God does heal people “supernaturally”. Sometimes. But very few church leaders nowadays would encourage members to rely solely on prayer for physical healing – they would tell them to go to a doctor. By doing this they are not implying that God can’t, or won’t, heal people; they are recognising that God uses doctors and medicine to make people well.
The Drowning Man
I am reminded of the story of the man who was trapped on his roof as his house became surrounded by floodwater. He prayed to God to save him, and waited faithfully and patiently for his prayer to be answered. A neighbour shouted for him to climb into his rowing boat but the man politely declined, assured that his God would save him. A few minutes later a life boat sped towards the house and the crew yelled at him to jump in, but again the man refused. A little while later a helicopter spotted the man stranded on his roof and lowered a rope ladder to him, urging him to climb up before the water swept him away. Again, strong in his faith and confident that the Lord would rescue him, the man refused. Soon afterwards, the flood water rose above the house and the man was swept away to his death. When he got to Heaven the man asked God, I had so much faith that You would save me, why did You let me down? God replied: “I heard your prayer. I sent a rowing boat, a life boat and a helicopter – what more did you expect?”
The church does a lot of damage to people by failing to recognise that mental health is a real thing, and that it needs to be taken as seriously as physical health. People are made to believe that the way they are feeling is a direct result of something they have done, and that praying harder, reading the Bible more or “pulling themselves together” will cure them. In the vast majority of cases this is utterly counterproductive and results in the person’s condition becoming markedly worse. Just as in the story of the drowning man, God has given us the knowledge and understanding to be able to diagnose and treat many mental health problems effectively, and we need to become better at recognising this.
Stop thinking about straight jackets and padded cells
Treatment for mental health problems depends entirely on the severity and nature of the condition, just as with physical health problems. In some cases talking therapies or mindfulness meditation will dramatically improve someone’s mental health; sometimes the problem is caused by a hormonal defect so needs medication, and some conditions require a combination of both.
In society as a whole and in churches in particular, there is still a massive stigma surrounding mental health caused by ignorance and fear. Whilst few of us would admit it, deep down we still associate mental health problems with straight jackets and padded cells. Very few people recognise their own mental health problems (because they’re scared of ending up in a padded cell), which in many cases means they are left untreated until they become utterly debilitating and even life-threatening. What would we say to someone who found a lump in her breast and refused to go to the doctor? There are obvious flaws in this analogy but considering the number of deaths each year caused by stress-related illness or depression, it is certainly worth taking seriously.
What can we do?
1. Realise that mental health affects everyone, not just the “crazies”
If you have never suffered with a serious mental health problem, count yourself incredibly lucky. But if you have ever felt stressed, acted in anger and regretted it afterwards or had an irrational fear of something, then your mental health is not perfect. If this still doesn’t apply to you then congratulations, you are superhuman.
2. Recognise mental health problems in others, and urge them to seek help
If you think someone is suffering with some form of mental health problem, suggest that they should do something about it. Take a break, go on a mindfulness course, see a doctor, have counselling, take medication if necessary. Don’t make them feel that they have in some way failed at life if they have to do any of these things. If your friend showed up with a serious rash or a broken arm you would not tell them to “buck up” or “pull themselves together”.
3. If someone is struggling, treat them with love, care and respect. Pray for them but do it sensitively!
If you know someone is having treatment for a mental health problem:
- Ask them how they are and really LISTEN to what they say.
- Be prepared to help in practical ways if that’s what they ask for.
- Make the effort to build a relationship with them and don’t exclude them.
- Don’t be scared to ask about their condition from a place of genuine concern, it helps if people understand what’s going on.
- Ask them how they would like to be prayed for, and pray for them.
- Understand that the symptoms of mental health problems often affect a person’s mood and personality. If they are having a particularly hard time don’t be offended if they’re not their usual friendly selves!
- …pray for healing and expect an immediate result. Maybe it happens sometimes, and that’s great. But most of the time it just piles pressure onto the person and ends up with them feeling like they need to fake it.
- ..make it your own personal agenda to see them supernaturally healed. Pray for them by all means, but accept that healing for many is a long and complex process.
- …force them to be prayed for. In people who have been prayed for on a number of occasions with no obvious result this can cause confusion, upset and more damage. God heals in His own time and in His own way!
- …make the mistake of thinking that all mental health problems are the same. Just as with physical health, some things get better quickly and completely, while some are longterm conditions that you have to learn to live with. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask.
- …be so scared of saying something wrong that you don’t talk to them at all – as long as you’re saying it out of genuine love and concern and with sensitivity it will be appreciated!
4. Spread the word
The stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health will only go away if people talk about it more. So don’t be shy, start talking about it!
These are all my own thoughts and observations based on what I have read and experienced, I am not a health professional or a trained theologian. I would welcome any comments or disagreements – my aim is to start the conversation.
If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information and ideas on how the church can support people with mental health problems have a look at the Mental Health Action Pack from Mind and Soul and Livability.