While there are still great mysteries surrounding mental illness today, and ever greater misunderstandings, we now primarily understand mental illness as a medical disease – something to be diagnosed and treated within the realm of science. However, we would be unwise to relegate mental illness entirely to the secular world of medicine. Those who suffer from illnesses of the mind, and those who love them and live with them, will tell you that these are deeply spiritual diseases.
The danger, of course, is to tread the path of some Christians who propagate the myth that mental illness is purely spiritual in its causes and cures. God does not give us depression to test our faith nor to punish us for our sin or the sins of our forebears. Our faith in Jesus and right living and praying hard enough is unlikely to cure bipolar disease or ease our anxiety disorder.
So how do we understand the spiritual dimensions of mental illness?
First, we can see those suffering from mental illness for who they really are: beloved children of God. The demonization of mental illness has never quite been overcome with compassionate care for those suffering with it. Our culture’s insistence on success, achievement, and perfection leaves those suffering from mental illness in the darkness of secrecy. Because mental illness can be unpredictable and can cause irrational behaviors, fears that the mentally ill are some kind of menace to society remain. This is clearly evidenced in the media’s tendency to blame mental illness for the senseless violence perpetrated by mass murderers, thus ratcheting up fear of all those suffering from a mental illness. It is easier to claim that depression, low self-esteem, or bipolar disorder caused a young man to intentionally crash a plane filled with innocent people than to see that young man as a human being beloved by God. Because if God loves even him, what kind of a God is that? If a human being is capable of such a horrific act, what kind of a monster is humanity? What kind of darkness lurks within my own soul?
At the core, stigmatizing, ostracizing, and marginalizing those with mental illnesses allows us to distance ourselves, place ourselves in the categories of “normal,” “safe,” and “healthy.” Mark Vonnegut, in his memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, writes, "None of us are entirely well, and none of us are irrevocably sick. At my best I have islands of being sick entirely. At my worst I had islands of being well." Perhaps our biggest problem with mental illness is the fear of what lies within ourselves. Vonnegut also believes that "There are no people anywhere who don't have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly well most of the time."
Join the discussion at the next Untapped Questions where we’ll share our experiences and wisdom and look at where scripture can guide us on this journey of understanding.