It was very encouraging and not a little surprising to hear ministers in Parliament recently talking openly about their own experience of mental health difficulties (15 June 2012). One spoke of his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); another of his battle with depression. Unlike usual parliamentary relations, the reaction to these revelations was supportive and human.
So I’d like to follow their example and admit that I too have had – and still have – my share of mental and emotional health issues. I’ve struggled with OCD, social anxiety, depression and phobias on and off for most of my life.
In my early 20s, on the back of an unhealthily co-dependent friendship (amongst other things) I felt trapped and out of control. I visited both the doctor and the Samaritans. In the end I had a serious mental breakdown, dropped out of university and spent 6 months attending group therapy sessions at a psychiatric day ward. But good so often comes out of bad. At the same time I came (or came back) to Christian faith, and became friends with the person I’m now married to.
Then about five years ago I was briefly signed off work with stress for various reasons. On the back of that I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. From then till now I’ve been taking anti-depressants and attending weekly sessions with a psychodynamic counsellor – which are good but not easy.
On the whole I’m doing okay, and these issues don’t stop me from leading a ‘normal’ life, holding down a job and being an involved dad. I’ve mostly learnt to manage my conditions, or whatever you want to call them. But they’re always there in the background, and from time to time the anxiety, depression and feelings of low (or no) self-worth can become almost overwhelming; these are not pleasant times.
I’m not ashamed of any of this; I wouldn’t be writing this if I were (unless I were also suffering from a compulsive need to confess, which I suppose is possible). These experiences have made me a stronger, deeper, fuller, more whole person, and more compassionate and understanding towards others. Again, good comes out of bad.
So I’m writing this on behalf of everyone everywhere – Christian or otherwise – who has ever experienced mental or emotional health issues. I’m writing for those who have known the darkness of depression, anxiety, phobia, neurosis or psychosis. I’m particularly writing for those who are in the midst of it right now.
You are not alone, and there is no need to be ashamed. There is no shame in being unwell, whether in body or mind or spirit. We are all broken people, and those who have been so visibly broken have much to teach the rest of us. God seems to specialise in using broken healers, and in a sense Jesus was the model and epitome of this.
Of course Christ did not exactly suffer mental health issues in the usual sense; he was utterly at peace with himself and his God. But for that very reason he was not at all at peace with his culture or countrymen, or even his own family. He was far too sane, far too in tune with Reality to be in tune with the madness and unreality of ‘normal’ human society. And of course he suffered overwhelming emotional anguish at many times, culminating in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane and in the isolation and abandonment of Calvary itself.
Everyone needs healing
It is not the weak or the weird or the wicked who suffer mental or emotional health problems. It is anyone; in a sense it is everyone, though not all realise or acknowledge it. To admit that you have a problem, that you are unwell, that you are suffering or broken takes great courage, and is the first step to true healing.
For Christians there can be a particular stigma in mental illness. We think that because we’re ‘saved’ we should also be sorted; that signs of ‘falling apart’ are evidence of a lack of faith, or in some way a result of sin or a sign of failure as Christians. We think that believers should live healed, joyful, victorious lives that bear witness to God’s great salvation. In a sense that’s true, but we have a false picture of what it looks like to be healed or victorious.
We wouldn’t say that someone shouldn’t ever have a broken leg because they’re saved, or that Christians should never get old and frail, or die. Christian salvation, healing and victory aren’t like that at all; it’s a false picture, and a false pressure. Christians aren’t people who never get ill or never suffer, physically or mentally; far from it. Rather they’re people for whom illness and suffering do not have the final word; whose illness and suffering can be redeemed and redemptive.
In fact for Christians, mental illness or brokenness can afford us perhaps the greatest opportunity for redemptive, transformative growth and change that we can have. It lets us see deep down into the darkness of ourselves and begin to face and accept some of that darkness rather than pretending it isn’t there. We have to face this stuff at some point if we want to be truly whole people.
For like it or not, we are all broken, all of us; we’re all damaged, flawed people. We just get good at hiding it, at covering it up, at concealing it even from our own awareness. We put up the familiar façade; we pretend that we’re fine and whole and that all is well. But under the surface there are deep insecurities, anxieties and fears; there are wounds and hurts that we have never dealt with. And if we refuse to acknowledge them, one day they will very probably rise up and bite us. Only by admitting our brokenness and facing it can we begin to be healed.
In light of a recent report that 6 million in the UK (1 in 10) are affected by mental health issues, some are accusing the nation of mental hypochondria. They think we now have a culture where to be labelled with a mental health condition is seen in some circles as a badge of honour. They say we too often put mental health labels on normal everyday conditions like shyness (‘social anxiety’) or unhappiness (‘depression’).
They’re concerned that this engenders a victim culture, where we blame others or our supposed mental condition for our ills (such as unemployment) or our misbehaviour, rather than taking responsibility for ourselves. Such thinking infantilises us and medicalises us, making us dependent on the state, on experts, and on drugs and the big pharma companies that make them.
Of course a similar criticism has often been levelled at religion – it’s a crutch, or a drug; it encourages childlike dependency on institutional authority rather than adult responsibility for oneself.
I’d say that in both cases there’s a real danger of this, and some do fall into this trap, but in neither case is this necessary or endemic. Genuine therapy requires you to take responsibility for your life and your healing rather than merely blaming or being dependent on others. Genuine Christian faith does the same.
In fact, I’d say that psychological counselling and Christian discipleship have a lot of the same goals and can work in parallel – I’ve discussed this more fully here. I’m not saying that counselling can ‘save’ you exactly; there are crucial aspects it can’t touch. But in gently requiring you to face and accept reality, including the parts of yourself you’d rather avoid, counselling and Christianity can both work together to bring healing of self and relationships.
It may well be that our society does seek mental health solutions to societal issues. Perhaps though this is because our society contributes to mental health problems by the very structures and values it promotes. The culture of long working hours and the drive to succeed materially contribute to high stress and insecurity. Consumerism, advertising and the emphasis on physical image contribute to ‘affluenza’, poor self-image and shallow relationships. Fragmented families with absent or preoccupied fathers lead to children without a deep sense of self, of their own worth. And so on, and so on.
Here isn’t the place to analyse the causes of all the many ills of our society, and it’s all too easy to point the finger of blame – as we saw after last year’s riots. We’re probably all part of the problem, and can all be part of the healing. But whatever the causes, it seems to me there’s an emotional and spiritual malaise, even black hole, at the heart of our culture. This is perhaps something that both counsellors and Christians can work to address; maybe even together.
The God neurosis?
Of course, some people see Christianity, or any religious belief, as a neurosis or even a psychosis – certainly a delusion, in Richard Dawkins’ famous phrase. Freud thought that religion was a kind of obsessional neurosis, and belief in God just a Father-figure projection. And to be fair, it can sound a bit bonkers, claiming that we commune with and follow the command of someone we can’t see and can’t even prove exists.
To be even fairer, some of the ways we act as Christians really can be a bit bonkers. There are many theologies and religious practices which I think are emotionally unhealthy and unhelpful, however much we think we’ve read them straight out of the Bible. And Christian sermons and books don’t always encourage us to ways of living and relating that promote our mental and emotional wellbeing.
Sometimes when we’re vulnerable the very worst place for us to be is in church. I don’t like saying that and I don’t want to indulge in church-bashing. But insensitive, psychologically unaware Christians have often done more harm than good with well-intentioned but misguided Job’s-comforter platitudes, guilt-trips and Bible-quoting. Long-term emotional health issues can’t generally be fixed with a couple of quick prayers and a few handy verses about trusting God.
Nonetheless, I do believe that the true religion of Christ is the best way of real lasting inner healing and wholeness. This is no quick fix; it’s a lifelong programme (or relationship) of change and redemption. Nor is this either/or with counselling, whether secular or Christian; it’s been my experience that the two can work fruitfully hand-in-hand.
Throwing your lot in with Christ is a kind of madness – at least in the world’s eyes – but I believe it’s only through this kind of madness that true sanity can come. Christ’s wisdom may look like foolishness or even sheer bonkers lunacy, but that’s only because we’re blinkered by what our culture and our limited human minds think is rational and sensible. I mean no disrespect when I say that, in human terms, perhaps God is a little bonkers; all the best people are. 🙂