About twice a month a guy from our church coordinates Thinking on Tapwhere we’ll meet at a pub and discuss issues of spirituality, philosophy, and culture. Sometimes it doesn’t work too well, depending on the noise level but overall it’s been good.
Following the death of Robin Williams we are planning to discuss depression and suicide – a cheery topic, I know. I thought I’d pass along some of my broader reflections on mental illness.
First, whenever you talk about such charged topics, there almost always need to be qualifiers, if not in content, then in tone. What I mean is that both of these issues are complex such that there are few questions which we can answer with a simple yes or no. Even when we can simply answer “yes”, as in “Is suicide wrong?” that “yes” must be informed with a tone of compassion, grief, and longing for righteousness. If someone is a Christian can she expect to be rescued from their depression because of her faith? “No.” Along with this caveat is that I write as a minister – not a psychologist or some other “mental health professional” (which I think is a somewhat dubious title anyway).
Second, the Christian faith has important contributions to understanding and dealing with mental illness. The Christian believes that the human person is a body and soul joined together and this gives a foundation for the category of mental illness. If there is only a body, and if all that we are is physical entities then mental illness is simply a sub-category of physical illness. Every problem then is physical and requires a physical solution. The Christian faith pushes against this one sided perspective on the human being stating that there is a soul, that there is a real interior life that distinct from the body, though the two are connected. Read below how the soul interprets and recasts the experience of the body:
He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3:16-25
The “soul” is not merely a metaphor for emotions but speaks in some manner to our sense of self and personhood in that is more than our physical bodies and actually makes sense of bodily experience. If the soul (or mind) as something distinct from the body, disappears so does much of our understanding and treatment of mental illness. Imagine wanting to talk to a friend because you are sad and the friend simply replies that sadness is just a reflection of a physical malady and he is highly skeptical that talking will address it.
The Christian faith also helps avoid some of the extremes that come up when discussing mental health. There is the tendency to see people through the lens of victimization or responsibility with theories of therapy reflecting this basic assumption. The bible says that each of us lives as both the victim and as a responsible party. In this section from 1 Peter 1 the former ignorance (responsibility) and victimization (empty way of life handed down) are both addressed:
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do… For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors,
I remember a section from a book Wounded Heart (a powerful treatment of sexual abuse written from a Christian perspective) in which the author states that the most important aspect of his work with victims is their response to the abuse. This may sound cold or simplistic (I can assure you that the book is anything but a cold or simplistic treatment of this subject) but in fact it is actually freeing. There is no way to go back and undo having been a victim. So if we are forever controlled by the pain we experience and can do nothing about the response this is a terrible bondage. If on the other hand we dismiss the violence and wrong in this world we are complicit in the evil. The Christian perspective in which each person is both a victim and responsible gives appropriate weight to the wrong we experience, the danger of perpetuating such evil, and the possibility of change.