Faith and Mental Health
So today we come to the last in our series on “Faith in Real Life” – over the past few weeks we’ve looked at how our faith might touch the way we think about family, about decision making, about how we respond to fear, how and why we work for justice, what our faith says about community, and how faith works in us for perseverance.
And today we come to our last, but by no means least important topic – Faith and Mental Health.
Which – and this is, I’m sure, no surprise to anyone – is a really big topic: we could spend a whole series on this one question, I’m sure. Today I’m going to just scratch the surface, perhaps start some off some further thought and reflection and investigation, and I’m going to do it in two areas in which our faith (and in particular, our life as a community of faith) intersects with questions of mental health.
I’m going to talk firstly about mental health and hospitality, then about mental health and community.
But I have to start by noting that this is an issue about which I already knew that I was astonishingly ignorant, and everything I’ve found over the past couple of weeks as I’ve been thinking about this topic has just confirmed that I am, in fact, even more ignorant than I had realised. So I’m going to start with a really important word of warning: that faith, however strong, and theology, however profound, are not the same as professional expertise.
The Church has, I believe, an important role to play in the care of those who struggle with mental health; the understanding of faith can help us in the way we deal with our own mental health struggles and those of others around us, but neither is a substitute for the expert care of those who make this their lives’ work. Just as with physical sickness or disability we may appreciate the support of the Church and the wisdom and inspiration of faith while relying on care, guidance, and treatment from the medical profession, so it is with mental health.
So that said, faith and hospitality. What does it mean, in the context of mental health, for us at Roseville Uniting Church to show radical hospitality? The hospitality of God, that goes beyond the norm, that extends the love of God to all, however like or unlike us they might be.
Noting my personal ignorance, I began my research, as you do, by asking Facebook. In particular, I asked in a Facebook group that I’m part of, a group of people who have struggled in one way or another with their experience in Church. Knowing that many in that group had mental health challenges, or were parents of neurodiverse kids, and that many had struggled with being part of a Church community for that reason, I asked what seemed a simple question: what do you wish the Church understood?
There was no shortage of people willing to answer that question. Heartbreaking stories of people who had left Church communities because they were unable to feel accepted, or because they were told their kids’ behaviour was too disruptive of worship, or, most of all, because they felt judged for the way they, or their children, responded to Church.
Parents wrote about being told their autistic child was rude for not shaking hands; or that their child with delayed emotional development just needed firmer discipline; a woman with selective mutism wrote about being treated by the Church as wilfully defiant or obnoxious when anxiety froze her ability to speak.
So many different stories, but one theme kept coming up over and over again:
Don’t assume you know what is going on in someone else’s life.
Instead, in the words of Colossians chapter 3:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.
Those words, Paul’s description of Christian community, are the exact opposite of the experiences so many people described in their encounters with Church. The lack of humility, in assuming you understand; the lack of patience when we focus on the disruption caused or our own inconvenience; the lack of compassion for those who are finding life a lot harder than most of us.
One of those who responded, a mental health professional, suggested a number of specific things to keep in mind whenever someone seems as if they don’t find it easy to fit, doesn’t always respond in the same way as everyone else:
Don’t expect everyone to accommodate the neurotypical way of doing things… (for example making eye contact, touching, greeting).
Don’t criticise coping mechanisms… (someone wearing earphone, or playing on an ipad during Church – there may be really good reasons, don’t assume the negative).
Don’t define someone by their mental health diagnosis (as if that is the only thing about them that matters, the only thing you know about them / dismiss their abilities because of the label)
Don’t offer simplistic suggestions or trite reassurances… (such as just exercise more or eat healthier for example).
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another…
But all of that, thinking through how we might be more hospitable to those with mental health difficulties, comes with the danger that we think about mental health as a problem for some “them”, some “other”, who need our help, our support, our care. And while it is all good to think through how we help those in need, the truth is that “those in need”, when it comes to mental health, is us.
Around one in five Australian adults experiences some form of mental illness in the course of a year, almost half at some point in their lives, with depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse (or a combination of those three) being the most common.
But the stigma of mental health, and lack of general understanding, is such that over half of those who suffer from a mental illness never seek any form of treatment.
And all too often, the Church, rather than being a place of safety in which people can be honest about their struggles and seek the help that they need, can inadvertently instead make the problem worse.
That can take the form of a well meaning but quite harmful faith-centric response to issues of mental health: when the victim of an anxiety disorder hears the Church teach “do not worry about anything, but by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”, or someone suffering from depression hears “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice”.
It’s not that those are not good and important parts of the Christian gospel, but they are just that: parts; with a time and a place to read them and a context place them in. The implication that the sufferer just needs to get their faith in order to feel better, or worse, that their anxiety or depression is simply a choice that they need to untake.
But perhaps a great danger for us in the less fundamentalist parts of the Church is that we, by our silence, accept and perpetuate the silent stigmatisation of mental illness. That we, in short, fail one another simply by being just like the world around us.
That we perpetuate the myth that everything is ok; that we’re feeling fine. That we ask one another how they are going with exactly the same expectation that the answer will be positive as you would find outside the doors of the Church.
The Irish theologian Peter Rollins has said that the Church ought instead to take a leaf out of the book of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs; that our opening statement, our introduction to one another each week that we meet ought to be a declaration of our struggle, the darkness we are suffering. That might seem an extreme response – and it is – but somehow it seems to me that we need to give one another permission to not be fine. We need to make sure that the Church is a place where it is ok to not be ok.
Jesus came into the world in order to save the world. And as he said himself, it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, it isn’t the people who have got it all together who need to be rescued.
Perhaps you noticed the Church board on the way in: “No Perfect People Allowed”. I hope so. I hope you looked at it, and decided to come in anyway. Because I’d like each one of us to look at the others around us here today and know that they too read that sign, and came in anyway.
Because the truth is that none of us are fine. Not in every way, not all the time, in fact, really, not any of the time.
So maybe instead of asking each other “how are you?”, we might instead ask “how aren’t you? what’s hard for you at the moment?”
If you dare ask that question, just remember two things.
Be ready to actually listen to the answer.
And then be willing to answer it yourself.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another… Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.