Mental illness is not as obvious as a broken leg, but it’s just as real.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Almost half of those who suffer from anxiety and/or depression have never sought medical attention. In one study, 84% of clergy say they have been approached by a suicidal person for help (cited in Preventing Suicide by Karen Mason, page 183)–and yes, in case you’re wondering, I am among that 84%.
So mental illness is a reality. It touches many lives directly or indirectly, in the church and outside of it.
One way that the church can respond to mental illness is to stop hiding it, and one way to stop hiding it is to recognize that the Bible includes stories of people with mental illness.
King Saul was tormented by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14-23). He was so distressed that he didn’t know what to do with himself, and his attendants finally suggested that they find someone who could play the harp for him and maybe he would feel better. King Saul agreed to try it, so they arranged for David to come with his harp, and whenever King Saul felt tormented, David would take his harp and play. We might think of this as an early example of music as mental health therapy.
The great King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was suddenly taken ill. He couldn’t stand to be with other people. He couldn’t stand to be in his beautiful royal palace. Daniel 4:33 says:
He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.
Some time later and just as suddenly, the king’s health was restored, and he became well again.
Psalm 22, which has so many parallels with Jesus’ death on the cross, may also be understood as the cry of someone with severe depression (verses 1-2):
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
The apostle Paul writes of “a thorn” in his flesh, which may have been a physical ailment or perhaps depression or some other kind of mental illness. Whatever it was, he described it as “a messenger of Satan to torment me,” something that he had brought before God in prayer three times, but that still plagued him (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).
The man living among the tombs in Mark 5 is perhaps a clearer illustration. He was so disturbed that he would often howl out loud and hurt himself with stones. He needed to be restrained from hurting himself, but he was so strong that he would tear apart his chains. Today, his symptoms might possibly be diagnosed as some form of schizophrenia.
Miraculously, Jesus healed the man, and when he was clothed and in his right mind, the man wanted to join Jesus and travel to the next town with him. But can you imagine, Jesus actually turned down a potential follower! Jesus wasn’t intent on surrounding himself with more and more disciples. Instead, Jesus said to the man (verses 19-20):
“Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
Today when I talk with people who are impacted by mental health issues, when we pray together, I wish I were like Jesus with the miraculous power of healing. I long to relieve their torment and to see them restored to health. Unfortunately, miraculous healing is not one of my gifts. Maybe that’s not one of your gifts either.
And yet like Jesus, we can pay attention to those who are dealing with mental illness, we can listen, we can pray, we can be part of that community of friends to surround them with healing presence.
Those who are dealing with mental health issues may be tempted to withdraw—like the man who was healed from his mental illness was eager to get away from his usual surroundings and go away with Jesus. But for the man’s ongoing health and healing, Jesus returned him to his own community.
For his sake, I hope they received him well and were a healing presence for him, just as I hope that the church today can be a healing community for those who are dealing with mental illness.
Becoming more aware of mental illness in Scripture and in our lives today is just one way that the church can stop hiding mental illness. Sharing stories, praying together, having a Mental Health Awareness Sunday as my church did yesterday, can also help to lessen the stigma and contribute to greater understanding.
Your turn: Does your church have a Mental Health Awareness Sunday, or something similar? In what other ways does your church respond to mental illness?