In the last article, I addressed the issue that all of us have a mental health, though not all become mentally unwell. Our mental wellbeing is subject to the same vicissitudes of life that plunge some into the depths of mental illness.

Towards the end of the article, I proposed to examine the Christian perspective of our mental health. Since then, certain events that took place have made me stop and think. It is more important for us to place a hold on that topic while we examine more closely our attitudes toward mental health. I know this may prove uncomfortable and challenging to some. Nevertheless, I insist that we must not shy away from this issue of attitudes, we must first confront our own beliefs and attitudes toward this taboo subject, if we wish to respond positively.
Scenario 1

Last month, I attended a training workshop on how to prevent suicide. The trainers were very experienced and excellent in delivery of the subject. Even though there was not much to look forward to by the very nature of the topic of suicide, they kept a fun side to it and managed to keep a light atmosphere to an otherwise heavy subject.

Aside from that my attention was drawn, from the outset, to a form that was to be completed by participants as part of initial introduction to the two day training. One of the questions on the form was “If you were suicidal, who you will tell?” The question that followed was something like this: “Would you tell a family member, a colleague, your neighbour, your local GP or your vicar?”

As a Christian, that question sprung other questions to my mind: In our churches, do we have the space and atmosphere where people can experience the freedom to talk about their real emotions without feeling they are being judged? How often are we able to confide in one another about the experiences of our inner world? How likely will a Christian brother or sister approach another in church or an unbelieving confidant outside the church and tell them “you know for some time now I have been feeling so terrible and last night, I thought of taking my life…” What will be your response to these questions?

Perhaps your immediate reaction is; no true Christian should ever feel this way! Or perhaps you might be saying; how can a Christian think or talk like that? You need to consider that we are all at different levels of maturity at any one time and we all have different abilities to cope with crisis. (1 Corinthians 10:13).

We run the risk of becoming like the ostrich that buries its head in the sand and pretends that all is well in spite of obvious trouble in its surroundings. We may choose to deny, trivialise or even spiritualise (through charismatic clichés) the possibility of people sitting in our pews who could be experiencing such emotions which are too difficult to share for fear of what others might think. I recently heard about Pastor Rick Warren’s son who committed suicide. As sad as it is, I asked myself; did it have to come to this before the church wakes up to this issue? When we talk about issues of mental distress, we often think about helping those outside the church. What if there are some among us who need our help?
The example of scriptures

One of the qualities of the Holy Scriptures that I appreciate so much is that in the Bible, God presents men and women to us truthfully – men and women we can relate to. Elijah was perhaps the greatest prophet after Moses in the Old Testament. Yet despite all his exploits, the Bible records that he was worn out by the pursuit of one woman; Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. He became depressed even to the point of feeling suicidal. (1Kings 19:4). Only God knows what he would have done if he had a box of paracetamol and some alcohol available at the time. You can never tell what a man will do in that frame of mind, if God does not intervene.

David was a man after God’s own heart. As we read the Psalms he wrote, it was not all rosy, joyful and ‘heavenly’ emotions: we come into contact with the broadest spectrum of human emotions that one can ever experience as he draws from the experiences of the highs and lows of his life. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4). In his book, The Fourth Dimension – Volume 1, Dr David Yongi-Gi Cho, Senior Pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, the largest church in the world, speaks of a time in his life as a pastor. He shares about when he found himself in such deep emotional distress, at a time that he could not see a way out of huge financial debts, he wished to God that he could die.
The church, a place of healing

Andy, who has experienced a mental breakdown, said “the world is not a perfect place and mental illness is one of its imperfections.” My local pastor once preached a sermon, using the metaphor of the hospital as a picture of the church. The church is indeed God’s hospital where the sick may come to receive healing. In other words, the church is not for perfect people. The good news is that Jesus does not leave us the way we are, when we come to Him. The Holy Spirit begins to perfect ordinary people who come to Christ. Transforming them from that old nature of sin, sickness and depravity and conforming them to the perfect image of Christ the Son of God who died for us and took upon Himself all our imperfections on the cross of Calvary. Oh what a glorious work that Christ has accomplished on the Cross on our behalf!

I can see no other atmosphere in which such healing can take place except in an atmosphere that is saturated with the love of God. It is sad but true to say that we have people in our local churches, who suffer or may have suffered some form of mental distress and may never come to experience this love of God from fellow believers.

Often the tendency is to dismiss people who experience a nervous breakdown as ‘weak’ or ‘not strong enough’, whatever that means. None of us is strong enough except in Christ. The truth is that if we are to carry one another’s burdens and be supportive of one another, we must begin to recognise that each of us is different in how we experience life situations and its stresses. People who experience a mental breakdown do not make it up. Neither are they necessarily weak nor lazy. Often, we hear discriminatory language used in the media to describe the sufferer of a mental illness. Stigmatising language like “schizophrenic person” or “a schizo” can only make it harder for those who may be experiencing any mental health issues to open up and ask for help.

If we persist in our attitudes, we run the risk of having only superficial contact with the life of those who may be suffering in silence. Our challenge is to accept the person and not the illness. It is true to say that while mental health problems can affect the whole psyche of a person, including thought processes, emotions and behaviour, it is also true that there are people who have experienced a mental health condition and have recovered. I personally know of a close relative who for over 20 years ago suffered with psychosis. Today, he has a stable family with a wife and children and he is an active member of his local church serving Christ.
Scenario 2

At another event in the past month, I was delivering mental health promotion training to a group of health administrative workers. On the first day, I noticed that one of the participants was quieter than the rest of the group and I put it down to shyness. On the second day of training, she was much more active and contributed to discussions so I rationalised that she must be feeling safer within the group.

On my way home, I met her on the bus so I took a sit beside her and we began to chat. I shared my observation with her that I notice she was more active during the discussion of the second day. She replied that she had been looking forward to the second day which was to address anxiety problems and psychosis. She explained that she had experienced two episodes of psychosis over the past ten years, with the last one only three years ago. Despite this being the case, she managed to hold down a full time job. She made a statement; for the first time she felt able to talk about the issue of mental health in an open way. So I asked myself, is this not the same atmosphere the church is meant to create? The non-judgmental, open, transparent, safe and secure environment in which people are not afraid to hide their feelings and instead feel confident enough to share them without feeling less Christian or less accepted. It reminds me of the attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ when the woman caught in adultery was brought to Him for His judgment.

It is my conviction that church must be the model for showing positive attitudes to all people including the mentally unwell and other marginalised people in our society. When people feel rejected, discriminated against and ostracised outside the church, they may find the refuge, love and acceptance they seek in our churches. Our challenge is to accept the person and not the illness. One of the key features that mark those who eventually complete suicide is, they often give signals or clues hoping someone out there will take notice. Often times, in this busy world of ours, including our program packed churches, everyone is so busily wrapped up in their own world that we may fail to notice others.

This lady made another interesting observation which caught my attention and got me thinking. She said her manager is very supportive of her mental wellbeing without knowing it. At this point, our conversation ended abruptly as she had to get off at the next bus stop. Beloved, my question is; if this young woman happened to be a Christian, who do you think she may turn to when she is faced with difficulties in life. Will she turn to a Christian sister or brother or her vicar or perhaps her manager? Who has shown her love?

We need to build an atmosphere of trust, but like every process of building it takes time and these days most of us do not have time for ourselves, let alone for others. We need to take time to build relationships. We need to get to know the person who sits next to us in the pews. They may hold the key to the answer of a life problem. I am not advocating that we become nosy, seeking to know every other person’s business. Rather we are to show an interest in others if indeed the Spirit of Christ dwells in us.
The way forward

I propose that to go forward we need to acknowledge that there are people among us who may be suffering from one form of mental distress or another. We must refrain from using judgmental and discriminatory language that only ostracises people rather than includes them and embrace those who may have suffered a mental health problem with love. We must accept those among us as God’s children, God loves them no less than He loves us, just as every one of us who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour. We must believe with them that God has good plans for them, our God is the ultimate Healer and that the church can and should be the best atmosphere for healing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.