By Nanette Nelson, LCMHC
For those of you who don’t know, I am a mental health therapist and how I came to this career was a journey. Years ago, I was a Dental Hygienist who gave birth to a child on the Autism Spectrum. As I came to learn of his disability and how to manage his behaviors in the academic system, I became involved with a support group for parents of children with special needs and found it to be a God send. As the years went by, I took over the management of the support group and learned how life’s circumstances could affect one’s mental health and how important it was to feel heard and be supported. I eventually felt that God was calling me to my current career through this experience.
In my practice I find one of the most disabling aspects of mental illness remains the feeling of being judged or stigma. In this modern age where mental illness is discussed openly on TV, social media, in newspaper and magazine articles with services advertised in ads and commercials, stigma still remains in many families and cultures. The New Testament tells stories of Jesus’ affinity for those who are often the victims of negative judgements. One story in Luke (4:33-37) tells of Jesus commanding a demonic presence out of a man in the temple and another from a man among the tombs (8: 26-39). These men were outcast from society. Many believe these individuals were exhibiting behaviors similar to someone with schizophrenia. They also believe that those who demonstrate these behaviors today are still possessed by demons. Modern science has proven that two of the most debilitating mental illnesses today, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia are caused by chemical imbalances that can be helped with medication and have a high incident of being passed down genetically. So, what are we now to understand from these stories?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health not in terms of the absence of signs or symptoms of mental illness but rather in terms of the capacity to cope with life, and to contribute fruitfully in work and in the wider community in spite of occasional symptoms. Mental well-being is experienced in community, not in isolation. Jesus’ way of “casting out demons” was to call these men back into the flock of the faithful. Casting out those with demons is antithetical to casting out the demons. The demons of mental illness are related to beliefs, emotions, identity and relationships in such a way as to impact upon the very essence of human experience. Common misconceptions regarding mental illness include being a sign of weakness, God’s way of testing your faith, an inability to trust the Lord, punishment for your sins and a sign that your Christianity is lacking. Our faith offers much to those struggling with these issues and we are called to be a loving community in their presence. According to the Bible, Jesus sought to restore those afflicted to community, expecting us to accept them as they are, not judged for things they can’t control.
The two most common mental health issues we encounter are depression and anxiety. Everyone with no exceptions, experiences symptoms related to these issues. One symptom of depression is feeling overwhelmed by negative experiences. Jesus was known for going off by himself to be with God at times when he appeared to be overwhelmed with something. He also exhibited anxiety when he asked the Lord to “take this cup from me. Proof that God knows of our anxiety is the fact that the phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in the Bible. Why then do we stigmatize behaviors related to these issues? I had a client once who asked me for coping skills so her children didn’t realize she was depressed. I asked her if she hid, colds, the flu or any physical malady from her children. I then explained that physical maladies were not stigmatized so we felt able to model appropriate care for these illnesses. She would tell them to take NSAIDs for fever or decongestant for a head cold. You want them to be able to care for themselves. I noted that all humans have symptoms of depression or anxiety from time to time. (even Jesus) and asked if she wanted them to know how to care for themselves then?
I feel that God wants us to acknowledge all symptoms of mental illness so we can gather a community to help. Why would God see this as helpful?How many times have we heard or thought “it’s all in his/her head?” Let’s think about that for a second. Have you ever heard the term “brain dead?” We may use it as a joke, but the medical profession uses it to mean that no brain activity equals no life. Our brain is the operating system for humans. It runs everything. When our brain isn’t working properly or is running on malfunctioning “software” if you will, what do you think is happening to our physical, social or spiritual behaviors and feelings. In therapy or in supportive community, our brains are exposed supportive or more functional narratives. This in turns helps our brain reprogram unhelpful thoughts or beliefs. Sometimes, just processing our non-functional thoughts out loud helps us to hear them and recognize a need for correction.
We don’t need any special training to help those who may need it. Just listening can help in this process. Sometimes just being with someone who is telling themselves they are un-loveable can visibly show them the untruth of these thoughts. Sometimes just a smile can do that. We may also have opportunity to share a similar story and share in their journey. I believe this is why Jesus calls us into community. The Surgeon General spoke this week (May 1, 2023) about the epidemic of loneliness and how it doesn’t only affect us mentally, but physically as well. The church is known for easing loneliness so please let us consider this a major area of ministry.
I ask you to think about these things and reconsider your thoughts of stigma. I ask you to think about how Jesus used his great trial to bring forgiveness and peace to all. Please consider normalizing your trials to bring forgiveness and peace to someone you may know or who may be unknown to you.