Mental illness is a topic of conversation fraught with many taboos, misunderstandings, and uncertainties. Sometimes we presume when we shouldn’t, don’t ask questions when we should and stay silent when we need to speak.
When I was in my second year of uni, I remember a conversation that I had at a Christian weekend away where we began talking about mental illness. A friend mentioned that when they started struggling someone told them that all they needed to do was remember Jesus loved them, because they had forgotten Him. To me, it seemed absurd that this was the practical spiritual advice that was offered. It relied on the notion that the source of the person’s ill health was them forgetting Jesus and that had made them “sad” with life.
The above attitude shows a pretty prevalent view of mental illness in the Christian community, whereby there is a believed causal link between mental illness and someone’s relationship with God. Research actually shows that between 30% – 45% of Christians with a mental illness have been told their illness was a result of personal sin or a lack of faithfulness. This is concerning, given most Christians who are struggling with their mental health actually first seek assistance from their church community.
I think the above attitude is just the Christianised version of the secular world’s view that people just need to be stronger, that it’s a problem brought onto by themselves. Buck up and stop whining.
According to the Bible, the world is overcome by depravity caused by sin. Sin isn’t just a thing that comes and goes in the world but is always present in it and in us. This means, much like a cold, our bodies can be subject to mental illness – it is a result of a depraved world rather than the sinful behaviour of a single person.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. – Romans 8:22-23
Knowing this shapes our response to people who have a mental illness. It forces us to acknowledge that mental illness is a symptomology of the world rather than a symptom of someone’s sin. This means that it’s not just a spiritual issue but a physical one as well. We should look to actively encourage people experiencing mental health issues to be seeking the appropriate support and care.
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. – John 15:10-13
However, an important thing to remember is that although mental illness isn’t caused by sin, it can lead people into the temptation of sin. When things are rubbish it is easier to do things we’d normally veer away from, and to veer away from things we’d normally do. We fall out of good habits into bad ones. Seek to balance practical care with encouraging faithfulness.
How low the spirits of good and brave men will sometimes sink. Under the influence of certain disorders everything will wear a somber aspect, and the heart will dive into the profoundest deeps of misery. It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied over with the pale cast of melancholy, but the evil is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of fancy and diseased imagination. Reader, never ridicule the [depressed]; their pain is real. Though much of the evil lies in the imagination, it is not imaginary. – Charles Spurgeon