I found this article (HT: Rob Martin again, I believe) about the Church’s reaction to mental illness among its members to be a needed and timely reminder of how we too often react. It also brings back memories of one of my college professors. My Physics professor was very affected by how he was viewed by students. He constantly tried to adjust his teaching to get good reviews. Of course, this would backfire. If he got easier, good students complained about not learning and the lack of challenge. If he got harder, poor students whined about him hurting their GPA. As a teacher, I know better than to get my self worth from trying to please every student. It is pretty much impossible to make every student possible.
Here is where the problem came in. His behavior was actually symptomatic of a larger problem. He battled with depression. This is why he was so affected by the student evaluations each semester. Tragically, he came from a faith tradition that taught that depression was only a spiritual issue, and that prayer and faith were the only acceptable ways to deal with this. I don’t know if he tried to get any psychiatric or psychological help, but I don’t believe that he ever received consistent treatment, and certainly was never given any medicinal help.
I had him for Physics I the spring of my first year (I believe). I didn’t learn much, but did OK in the course. I signed up for Physics II in the fall, since I was required to take both semesters, but didn’t really look forward to it. Nor did I dread it. I didn’t think too much about it that summer. As I came back to campus that fall, I was greeted with the news that we would be having a different professor for Physics II. The consequences of not having learned much in Physics I came back to get me, but that’s not the point of this story. The point is that the reason for the new professor was tragic. My scheduled professor would not be our professor because he could not be. The Thursday before classes began, he committed suicide in his office at Messiah.
I didn’t know him all that well. I had never spent time talking with him in his office or anything more than a quick question in class or working on a lab assignment. I’m sure the faculty were more affected than we as students were, since some of them likely knew him much better than we did, and having one of your colleagues commit suicide would certainly be disconcerting, to say the least. Still, I have thought about him off and on over the years, and the unfortunate consequences that misguided theology can have.
I believe that God has given the fields of psychiatry and psychology a great deal of tools so that they can help us. He has also given us plenty of scriptural examples of people who struggled with mental illness of varying degrees. Some dealt with it well, others not. (I think King Saul would be an example of not dealing with it well.) I certainly think that prayer and fasting can be a part of the solution, but I see no evidence in Scripture that we should not be allowed to use those God has blessed with the ability to help us.
This article brought back those issues, and reminded me how sad it is that those feeling this inner struggle often feel like they cannot share about it with the Church. The one place they should be able to go for love and acceptance, not to mention support for them through the highs and lows, feels like one more place that they must hide and pretend that they are as happy and “together” as everyone else is pretending to be. Church should not be a place of false personas and fake smiles. It should be a place of healing and love.
Yes, I wish every healing was as quick and dramatic as the demoniac who meets Jesus, and has the demons cast out and immediately is “in his right mind”. I just don’t see that as the way it always works. Just as Paul was not released from his “thorn in the flesh”, some are not released from their mental struggles, but find that God can be exalted in their weakness. I pray that I would be able to model this in my reaction, and that the Church would realize what it takes to really model and attractive love that makes all feel as welcome as the masses were by Christ. Christ never attracted the lost by promising life on this earth would be easy, He attracted them by loving them as they are, and inviting them into relationship with Him. May we love others, and invite them to get to know our Lord who wants to walk through all of their ups and downs.
I’d encourage you to read the article, which is written by someone who has struggled personally with depression and anxiety. The first-hand experience provides a perspective that I can’t, and one all Christians should think carefully about.