Hey Church, Rethink Your Theology on Mental Health – Questions & Answers Part VII


The Church’s Steps Toward Recovery

Question:  How can the Church offer hope to those facing Mental Illness? 

Today we continue asking questions that need answered in order for the Church to make steps towards it own recovery in mental health?

Answer:   In a disease, which strips those severely ill of so many things, “hope” is the very ingredient needed when all seems “hopeless”.  I have heard the phrase “hope against hope”, but with mental illness it is “hope against hopelessness.”  How should the Church respond to the hopeless? By giving them hope.  Historically they are the only institution that has done this consistently throughout the centuries.

In the midst of darkness, in the abyss leading to suicidal tendencies, through the detaching of feelings and emotions, the one thread those in deep depression seek to hold on to is hope.  When all hope seems to be lost to the disease, suicidal tendencies begin to make sense to the one ill. 

In the movie Hook, the character Smee lost his marbles (physically and mentally) and is overjoyed at the end of the film when he “finds his marbles”.  In mental health the person ill feels like they have lost their marbles of feeling, reality, faith, hope, love, etc.  Like Smee they are so desperately hunting everywhere to get them back, but so detached that they cannot.

Hopelessness permeates depression, not only for one ill but also for their loved ones. When my wife was severely ill, not getting help from government institutions or the church, while desperately making phone call after phone call, doctor visit after doctor visit, med change after med change, with everything seemingly going nowhere, feeling stuck, I too became depressed and began to feel hopeless. I, in such a very small way, could begin to empathize rather than sympathize with my wife’s darker journey.

The poor, homeless, sick, the dredges of society have always, should always, and will always, be the focal point of the Church’s mission.  Jesus told his disciples, “You will always have the poor.”  He knew his mission and the Church’s mission to the poor, the sick, the lost. 

How can the lost be found? Through hope.  If someone is lost or missing we say there is “hope” in finding them. But after awhile we begin to lose hope when the reality of their length of being lost becomes real.  In mental health when we, the caretaker, begins to “lose” our loved one to this severe illness we at first go through “denial”, not wanting to admit this is happening.  To the depress child, the father says just to “get up, get a real job”, when in actuality the child is unable physically, emotionally, nor psychologically to be able to do that, or they would! As the detachment continues, reality sets in, and the caregiver joins in their loved one’s cry for help, usually getting frustrated when not finding any, but holding on that there is “hope” out there somewhere as the situation gets darker.  As the caregiver is getting pulled into the darkness of stigma, isolation, not knowing what to do, and not getting solutions from the medical field, they too begin to “lose” hope.  Depression is when you lose hope, so depression can be contagious. 

Although there is no “cure” for mental health, there is hope in recovery, that of making one’s life as productive as the illness allows, and the hope for a medical future.  There has been hope in medicine as the medical field has tried to tackle the problem, but side effects have thwarted that hope.  The new hope is in genetics, as research is making its move in that direction.

But spiritually, what is the Church’s basis for hope.  How is the Church to offer a hope in the resurrection, when the very spiritual life of the living dead, those deeply depressed, has been taken into the abyss of darkness where one even doubts their salvation or the value of life? That is a tough question for the Church to answer.  The Church can offer an “afterlife”, an eternal life in heaven, which may even be more appealing to one contemplating suicide where earthly life seems not to exist.  Unfortunately the victim to severe depression cannot find the peace in that promise nor the joy when they no longer know what joy is.  Instead they feel guilt!  When my wife was severely ill, she changed her passwords on various log-ins to “forgiven” because only in “forgiveness” could she see an answer to facing all her guilt spiritually.

If “forgiveness” is the key to guilt, and compassion is a “movement” or action, then the Church, and we Christians, have been called to move forward and unconditionally “forgive” victims of mental illness who do not understand what they are doing when under the influence of their severely ill conditions. We are speaking of an illness here, and must recognize it for what it is.  An illness does not equal sin in spite what some church leaders have taught in the past.  The Church needs to “move in compassion” to “forgive” the actions of the ill person, and help those ill to “forgive themselves” when guilt ridden and self esteem crushed.  When one is forgiven, hope returns.

When severely ill in the depths of the abyss of depression, my wife could not stop spiraling down, believing suicide may be a more viable option to the relief from her suffering, pain, and darkness, and could not feel remorse for what she was about to do.  One of the first signs that she was recovering and getting healthy was when she realized what actions she had done and the consequences of those actions. She felt extreme guilt.  Feeling guilt was the first signs of recovery, of again getting healthy!  As she got healthier, dealing with the forgiveness of her guilt and low self-esteem has been a constant struggle in her life.  As she has gotten better, hope too has returned.

The Church has powerful tools in forgiveness and hope, and it needs to exercise those gifts through action, through compassion:  physical acts of kindness, care, direction, and hope to those suffering from mental illness and their loved ones.