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A place of healing and understanding

by
09 October 2020

How can the Church support people who face mental-health challenges? John Swinton offers his suggestions

istock 

THERE is much talk, currently, about the “new norm”, as well as a deep concern and anxiety about what it might look like, and how it relates to the old norm.

When it comes to mental health, I suspect that the new norm may well be similar to the old: a sad story of misunderstanding, stigmatisation, alienation, and rejection.

It is not easy to live with a mental-health challenge. It is worse when the inherent difficulties are aggravated by negative attitudes, lack of understanding, and confusion over how to respond.

Churches are not always safe places for people with mental-health challenges. They have healing potential, but that is sometimes occluded by unhelpful theologies and casual theodicies: “You must have sinned;” “It must be a demon;” “You shouldn’t need medication: pray a little harder.” Like Job’s comforters, explanations such as these ease the anxiety of the one who offers them rather than the suffering of the person before them.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Jesus tells us that he comes to bring life in all of its fullness (John 10.10). Such a promise is not intended only for those who claim to be mentally healthy: it is for all of God’s people. We just need to work out how to get there.

Mental-health professions play a significant part in the healing process for people with mental-health challenges. Most people, for much of the time, however, are not acutely unwell. Most people live within ordinary communities, working out their lives in the midst of family, friends, church, and society. It is there, amid the complexities of community in general — and the Christian community in particular — that the Church can offer important gifts and insights.

In John 15.15, Jesus pronounces a profound change of identity for his followers. They are no longer servants; now they are friends. To be friends of Jesus is to act like Jesus: to fight injustice, to reject stigma, to offer friendship to all people, even during their darkest storms. The Church as the community of the friends of Jesus holds much potential for mental-health care.

 

THE central intention of the Gospels is to enable people to come to know God, and to live with God for ever. Within this perspective, mental health is not the absence of symptoms or distress, it is the presence of God.

The biblical idea of shalom (Judges 6.22-24) captures something of the essence of biblical health. Shalom relates to justice, righteousness, holiness, and, vitally, right relationship with God.

Shalom does not require freedom from sickness or disability. Moses retained his stutter (Exodus 4.10), and Paul could not pray away the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12.7-9). Yet both found true health in the faithfulness of God, even amid their challenges.

Even Jesus’s miracles, read theologically, can be seen as primarily aimed at revealing who Jesus is, and reconnecting people with God and the community. This is important. Many people will live with their mental-health challenges for all their lives; but that does not mean that people are inevitably, and always, ill.

If we think of health as the presence of God rather than the absence of symptoms, we can discover mental health in enduring challenges.

The task of the mental-health professions, then, is to help people to deal with the problematic and distressing aspects of their mental-health experiences. The task of the Church is to help people to remain connected with God and community, in spite of their difficulties.

 

THE part played by the Church is not explanation but understanding. That means understanding some of the technicalities of mental-health challenges, but it means much more. Understanding means entering a person’s experience, dwelling with them, listening to them, and not being distracted by what one might assume to be going on.

It means listening carefully and trustingly to the stories that people tell, and taking time to learn what the experience is like from the perspective of the individual experiencing it.

One of the most painful and distressing things that people live with is stigma. Stigma occurs when we reduce one part of a person to the whole of them. Mental-health diagnoses are particularly prone to stigma. When one gets a diagnosis like schizophrenia, it takes over our identity in the eyes of ourselves and others.

My friend Allen, who lived with schizophrenia, told me about the day he got his diagnosis. “It made me feel really sad. I thought my life was over. I’ll never do anything now.”

Just receiving the diagnosis made him feel hopeless. He took the bus home. On the bus, he met a woman with whom he had travelled on various previous occasions. He thought she was his friend. He told her about his diagnosis. She got up, got off the bus, and they never spoke again.

When he got home, Allen told his mum: “The doctor says I am a schizophrenic. My life is finished.” His mum looked at him, and said: “Allen, you’re not a schizophrenic. You are Allen, and I love you.” Love drives out fear, and helps us to hold on to ourselves in times of trouble.

Allen’s mum modelled the primary task of the Church: to love, and to give people back their names. There are no schizophrenics in the Kingdom of God, just beloved creatures.

 

TO BECOME a community that cares, we need to be formed in particular ways. Such formation is not only a task of pastoral care, it relates also to the way in which we preach, worship, pray, and act.

Preaching is the medium through which many people get their primary teaching about who God is, and what it means to live faithfully before God. It can also be where we learn what it means to be faithful to God, and to experience mental-health challenges.

I visited a church in Vancouver a year or so ago. Every week, before the sermon is given, the preacher must preach it to a group from the congregation, and then make adjustments depending on responses. The intention is to make sure that certain things, which might not be obvious to the preacher, are brought to the fore.

It would be interesting to do something similar, but to include the perspective of those living with mental-health challenges. Think how enriched our preaching would be if we genuinely were able to include the experiences of the whole people of God in the preaching of the Word.

Likewise, if we thought about our liturgy with the perspective of people with mental-health challenges in mind, our worship services would be much more inclusive.

For example, regularly engaging with the psalms of lament helps us to discover that God has given us a language to articulate our pain, suffering, and loss in worshipful ways which are open, honest, painful, but ultimately prayerful.

As we focus on the lament psalms, we discover that the deep sense of abandonment that some people experience is, in fact, something that has been shared by God’s people from the beginning: “Darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88).

Again, as we reflect together on the Gospels, using a mental-health hermeneutic, we discover resurrection, but we also encounter desolation. Jesus’s cry of abandonment from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” reminds us that, even when God seems distant and far away, Jesus remains with us, and shares in our pain and feelings of alienation.

Darkness is not simply an aberration: it is a part of our Christian spirituality. It may be deeply painful, but it is not something that is outside the history and experiences of God’s people.

As we begin, intentionally, to consider mental-health issues in relation to our preaching, exegesis, liturgy, and prayer, not only do our communities become more inclusive of the range of human experiences, they also reveal crucial aspects of our tradition that can easily be overlooked by an uncritical hermeneutic of happiness.

For our communities to be loving, safe, and faithful, we need to think carefully about the experience of Christians who are living with mental-health challenges. We need to develop creative partnerships with mental-health professionals so that both explanation and understanding can be a part of people’s experiences.

But, before we can enter such partnerships, we must be clear and confident about what it is that the Church brings to the table of healing. When we preach, pray, worship, and live lives of friendship, we will find beauty in difficulty, healing in the midst of hopelessness, and possibilities where, before, there seemed to be none.

 

Professor John Swinton holds the chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, and is founding director of Aberdeen’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability. He worked as a nurse for 16 years within the fields of mental health and learning disabilities, and also as a community mental-health chaplain. He is the author of Finding Jesus in the Storm: The spiritual lives of Christians with mental health challenges published by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £16.99).

Sanctuary Ministries runs a course designed for congregations to equip them to support mental health and well-being: sanctuarymentalhealth.org.

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