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Light for a Dark Path
People who live with mental illness are all around us. Yet they often suffer alone.

John Nash is one of the most gifted mathematicians of our lifetime. As a student at Princeton he wowed everyone with his genius. In 1994 he was awarded the highest honor in the field of economics: the Nobel Prize. John Nash is a brilliant man. John Nash also struggles with mental illness.

The Academy Award-winning movie A Beautiful Mind, released in 2001, poignantly showed both Nash’s mathematical genius and his fight against schizophrenia, which profoundly affected his life. The film put the issue of mental illness in the social spotlight, for a moment at least. It also put a human face on an issue that we would prefer not to talk about, let alone see—even in the church.

But followers of Jesus must recognize that mental illness isn’t, and shouldn’t be, far away from us. It isn’t limited to the distant halls of Princeton University and Nobel Prize winners, to brilliant people who struggle with that fine line between genius and madness. And it isn’t limited to the other extreme, to the many people who so struggle with mental illness that they can’t cope with society and end up living on the street. Mental illness isn’t far away. It is right here among us, maybe even within us.

More common than we admit

None of us has a perfectly healthy body. Some of us are seriously ill with weak hearts or failing backs. Others of us just aren’t as healthy as we could be—we’ve got a cold we can’t shake, our cholesterol is a little too high, or we’ve got a knee that acts up every time a storm is on the horizon. Similarly, none of us has a perfectly healthy mind. One Christian doctor writes, “Most people look at mental illness differently than physical illness. They tend to believe that mental illness is due to a character flaw or moral weakness. It’s important to recognize that the brain is an organ that is vulnerable to diseases just as any other organ of the body is vulnerable to diseases.”

Mental illness is more common than we’d like to admit. In any given year, 20 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, and 6 percent suffer from a serious mental illness. Of the 100,000 homes that receive this magazine, about 20,000 will have someone suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, and about 6,000 will have someone with serious mental illness this year.

We like to think that Christian communities are somehow exempt. They aren’t.

Mental illness is painfully real for many of you reading this article right now. My guess is that none of our lives is untouched by this issue. My own family has had to deal with dementia, Alzheimer’s, panic attacks, and suicidal depression. And I think my family is pretty healthy.

Mental illness is a reality in our communities; however, many of us would just rather ignore it. But if anyone should be talking about mental illness, the church should be. If any place in the world should be a safe place where people can find encouragement and support and compassion for their hurts—both physical and mental—the church should be that place. Most often we have responded out of ignorance and fear. We haven’t been a safe place for people to share their struggles with mental illness. We haven’t been understanding and compassionate and loving and nonjudgmental. We haven’t been patient.

We don’t know how to respond.

If someone has cancer, we know what to do—we bring meals and mow lawns and send cards. Cancer is a “casserole illness.” Mental illness is not. We don’t know what to do for someone who is severely depressed or who has bipolar tendencies or early-onset Alzheimer’s. So we often end up doing nothing.

A community of love

That isn’t the kind of community God has called us to be. In Romans 12 Paul lays out clearly how God calls us to live together in love.

We can begin by accepting mental illness as a reality in our families and in our community.

We are to be devoted to each other. We are to patiently love each other. We are to share ourselves with those in need. And we are to empathize with each other—to experience joy and hurt with each other. How do we do that as a community of Jesus Christ with people who are deeply hurting mentally?

We can begin by accepting mental illness as a reality in our families and in our community. The more we learn about it and understand it, the less we will fear it and the better we will know how to love as Jesus called us to love.

We need to understand that people with mental illness are not able to heal themselves, just as people with diabetes are not able to heal themselves. Someone struggling with depression can’t just “snap out of it” and make the choice to be happy. Someone who has been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD can’t just “sit still and concentrate.” Someone with obsessive-compulsive behavior can’t just will himself to stop.

Eighty-five percent of people who have a functional brain illness will get better. We don’t always know how the healing occurs, but it does. We need to understand that medication doesn’t cure the illness; it only relieves the symptoms. And we need to understand that this isn’t an “us-them” issue; it’s an “us” issue. Each one of us is affected. Not one of us is perfectly healthy (and to think we are is proof that we aren’t). Some of us struggle more than others, but we need to understand that we are in this together.

When we begin to understand the truth about mental illness, we will begin to empathize instead of judge. I asked my family member who struggled with   suicidal depression to tell me her story so I could better understand her struggle. Her story gave me a glimpse into the stigma and shame that our society and our Christian community place on those with mental illness. I understand better the pain that our ignorant comments can inflict. I felt with her how difficult it was to make that first call for help. I understand better why mental illness usually isolates individuals and families so they suffer alone while watching people with physical illnesses get meals and cards and prayers.

I also began to understand the spiritual repercussions of the disease. For many people, mental illness isolates them from God. Some wrestle with truth and faith. Some question God. Some lose contact with God.

Psalm 139 is one of the most comforting psalms in the Bible and a favorite of many. It speaks of God’s presence and personal care for each one of us. But what would your faith be like if your mind raged against each of this psalm’s assurances? What if your mind told you that God didn’t know you? What if you felt like you had outrun the Spirit of God? What if your mind told you that the darkness you were in was outside God’s reach? What if when you awoke you couldn’t believe you were still with God?

God has called us to be a community of compassion through which God can bring love and care to his hurting children. God doesn’t call us to be a community of judgment—the world around us does enough of that. And God doesn’t call us to be a community of technical cures—God often does that work through medical professionals and medication.

God calls us to be compassionate, to imitate Jesus.

When he saw hurting people, Jesus hurt along with them. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). When Jesus “saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (14:14). While teaching on the mountainside Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat” (15:32). When Jesus met two blind men outside Jericho he “had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34).

Jesus lived with compassion. He hurt with those who were hurting.

And now Jesus calls us to be communities of compassion. In 2 Corinthians 1 God commands us to comfort each other with the comfort that God himself has given us (see vv. 3-4). We see the exact same command in Philippians 2:1-2, Colossians 3:12, and Ephesians 4:32. We must be communities of compassion where even those with mental illness—especially those with mental illness—can experience the love of God.

Four compassionate responses

How can we become communities of compassion? The answer to that question is a conversation we must continue to have with each other. Let me share four ways to begin.

First, we must maintain each other’s dignity. We must define each other at our most basic and greatest value: we are all loved children of God. That definition affords us dignity and respect no matter what our condition may be—even if our illness prevents us from giving ourselves that dignity and respect.

We must also learn as individuals and as communities to listen in love without judging or condemning or gossiping. We must be safe places where we can hurt together and know that we are loved.

We must also be ready to offer practical help to those who are hurting mentally, along with their families, just as we minister to those who are hurting physically. We must serve them, their families, their children, and their spouses in love. Jesus’ compassion always led to action. Ours must as well.

Finally, maybe the greatest thing we can and must do is talk to Jesus for and with people who deal with mental illness. Pray for them—they themselves might not be able to. Compassionately speak the truth of Jesus’ love that they might not be able to feel. Share that love in Jesus’ name so Jesus may be present with them through you.

What’s next?

I don’t expect one article to completely change our culture or our communities. I do hope it will start the conversations that need to happen. If nothing else, I hope this article does three things. I hope that those of you who haven’t experienced the pain of mental illness will begin to understand it a little better so that as individuals and as the community of Jesus Christ we can begin to respond with love and compassion. I hope that those of you who are hurting right now know, maybe for the first time, that you are not alone. There are people right in your own churches hurting along with you. And for those of you who haven’t yet dared to ask for help, I hope you know that help is available and you can move toward healing.

If any of those things happens, God has worked. If more than that should happen—if our communities begin to become safe places where everyone can find love and compassion no matter their hurt—God has worked in a mighty way!  

Originally published in The Banner, May, 2009.

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