Part 1: Setting the Scene
I am aware that I am about to touch on a rather contentious and sensitive subject in several respects. Not least because the experience of the mentally ill, especially of schizophrenia or psychosis, as it is now commonly known, often transcend our natural sensory experiences to the extra-sensory or unseen. This may include experiences such as hearing the “voice” or “voices” of persons who cannot be seen by others. Yet such an experience can be so real, enough to make the sufferer of psychosis respond to this “persons’ voice”. Suffice to say that not all mental disorders involve misperceptions.
There are also people who profess Christ as their Saviour and yet suffer one form of mental health problem or another. It is not unheard of these days to know one Christian brother or sister or even a minister of the gospel who may have experienced depression. So how do we respond to those in the church who experience one form of a mental health problem or another? As Christians this may present uncomfortable issues and may challenge our faith and our fundamental understanding of divine healing. But can the same not be said for physical health? Don’t professing Christians also suffer one form of physical health problem or another? What makes mental health problems so different?
I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions of dilemma for believers. However, I do know that part of the answer to this latter question lies largely in our attitudes to mental health. As a society, we have come a long way in how we have treated the mentally sick – from the period of the asylums to the more recent approach of treatment in our communities. Our attitudes are still evolving. You only need to observe the reaction of the media to a case of homicide involving a mental health patient to understand that our fears and prejudices around mental health are still as real as they have ever been.
Where does such fear and prejudice come from? Could it be a fear of the unknown? Many of us tend to shy away from the subject of mental health. Some may consider it too complex an area worth understanding and perhaps better left to the study of psychiatry. To the charismatic Christian, it is best to conveniently dismiss it as demon possession. Do not get me wrong, I am a charismatic Christian myself and I know that there is a place for demons in sickness but I also know that Christ is Lord of all and has the answer to all human problems. In His earthly ministry, He confirmed His authority over all forms of sickness both physical and mental.
Going back to the question of the source of fear and prejudice toward mental health, I believe this is largely due to the shame and stigma associated with mental ill health. Our response to such shame and stigma is that we would rather avoid talking about it than seek to learn about our mental health. This is true for most societies in the world and certainly true for our British society. It is even more true in our black African and Caribbean communities and even more so for black African Christians. However from a Christian point of view, is it not worth seeking to understand why a person made in the image of God, should lose their mind or become depressed or express another image other than the image of God, demonstrated by Christ in the Scriptures?
The stigma associated with mental illness is engendered mainly by ignorance about the illness. This creates fear and social distance from the person with a mental illness, perpetuating further ignorance. Some of us who were brought up in developing countries may recall the stereotypical images of the “mad man” – typically the man or woman who is visibly unkempt, malodorous, possibly carrying lots of belongings for days and eating from drains. Sometimes carrying wounds on his/her body and whose home is on the streets, jeered and called names by the children, feared and vilified or at best avoided by adults and without a home. He/She is often considered as cursed, demon possessed and be said to need exorcism. Inevitably he/she is also a fellow human citizen created in the image of God. I can see you are already beginning to wonder where I am going with this.
Our lack of understanding about mental health is illustrated in an event that I encountered (this week) during one of the meetings I attended at a GP surgery. One of the GP’s gave an account (the other day) in which one of his patients (a person whom I know in my past work experience), was accompanied to the surgery by her vicar. The patient suffers a mental disorder called psychosis of a delusional type – the term schizophrenia is less relevant now due to its pejorative connotations.
In her case, this woman who lives with her husband, suffers a delusional disorder type of psychosis in which she sincerely believes among other things that a particular policeman living in her neighbourhood has planted a camera in which he monitors her life and interferes with her daily activities such as bathing, cooking, eating and so on. This woman believes that this policeman could see her wherever she went and harassed her in various ways. As you can imagine, this woman must be living in daily distress and torment. During consultation with the patient, the vicar who was clearly taken in by the “reality” of the woman’s predicament, pleaded earnestly with the doctor, “Doctor can’t you do something to make this policeman go away, as he has persecuted her enough!” Clearly the vicar, who did not realise that this woman was experiencing delusional symptoms was also taken in by her experience, was not able to make the distinction himself between what was real and what was not.
In the coming weeks and months, if Christ tarries, I wish to use this forum to initiate and provoke discussion about our mental health and the Christian faith and hopefully generate greater awareness and learning about the subject of mental health among the Christian community, of which I am part of.