In 1994, my mother was first diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder-bipolar type. As you can imagine, this has deeply affected our family for many years. It is all the more complicated since my parents and I do not share the same faith.
Though I have tried to talk about it with other Christians, sometimes it feels like we have little to no shared framework for dealing with mental illness. Over the years, people have suggested my mother was possibly affected by the demonic. Others have said that all I need to do is pray, and it will go away. There might be truth to all of it, but this sort of talk can make me feel like I do not have much faith.
I often think if I were a “better Christian,” this problem would be solved. What can I do when there is no “praise report” to give? How do I tell another caring Christian, who has been fervently praying for me, that I feel I am in the same situation I was in a few months ago?
Often, caregivers feel like they have no idea what they are doing. While my church has been an amazing and invaluable strength, I can understand that this is not a common experience in India. So I believe it is worth talking about mental illness as a church.
India currently has 0.75 psychiatrists per lakh people, which is significantly low. If it targets having three psychiatrists per lakh people, it will need 27,000 more psychiatrists, according to The Hindu.
In this context, how much more caring could the church be if we had a solid, biblical, gospel-centred theology of mental health and specifically mental illness? What if we were more competent, compassionate, and confident when speaking about things like schizophrenia, bipolar, or OCD?
A Biblical Theology for Mental Illness
In Psalm 139, the psalmist celebrates God because he “fearfully and wonderfully made” all humans (Ps. 139:13-14). For those who struggle with mental illness, this Psalm assures them that they are made in the image of God. He knew us before any chaos, trauma, disorder, or illness came about in our lives.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that my mother is made in God’s image. But he has fundamentally bestowed her (and others like her) with the right to human dignity. They are image-bearers of a great and wonderful God.
Yet, as a result of the fall, we have lost communion with God. We have become vulnerable to death and human suffering. One of the consequences of the fall is mental illness—a combination of biological, psychological, and spiritual ailments.
Also, as a consequence of the fall, we cannot think clearly about each other. So we tend to stigmatise people who struggle with mental illness as “problem cases.” We may not blame people with cancer for their situation. But we certainly tend to blame people with mental illnesses for their situation.
Christians can also have a truncated view of what is happening. Instead of investing the time to develop a theology of mental health, we can often make unhelpful assumptions.
We may have an over-spiritualised view. As a result, we may strongly believe that schizophrenia or OCD primarily comes only from demonic influences, generational curses, or unconfessed sins. On the other hand, we can take an over-naturalised view. We may try to blame the brain, reduce the situation to biochemistry, and simply medicate the problem with a pill.
Both ways reduce something complex to something oversimplified. We must labour to understand and appreciate the whole being and the whole story. A gospel-centred theology of mental health will recognise the whole person and all the spiritual, physical, and personal dynamics at play.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus confronted the disease behind the symptoms. He fought and overcame the fall, destroying the powers of sin, sickness, and death. He has made a spectacle of every spiritual adversary, triumphing over them by the cross (Col. 2:15). Through his sacrificial death, he has broken the curse of the fall. His finished work has a real-world impact on the consequences of the fall.
Through his resurrection, God’s kingdom of healing is breaking forth into our world. It brings life and hope where there is only illness, death, and hopelessness. Even now, Jesus advocates before the Father for the mentally ill and their families. He intercedes for them at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:34).
The gospel reminds us that mental illness will never have the final word. The Lord Jesus will have the last word.
A robust theology of mental health comes with the assurance that a great King is coming in power to help us. Indeed, he has already appeared. Through his Spirit, he lives in the hearts of his people. God is always at work in our circumstances, whether we feel like it or not.
God is working today to reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:19-20). So how can local churches organise themselves to provide care for the mentally ill and their families?
Firstly, the church can create a shepherding team of elders, staff, and lay leaders that share the burden of care for the mentally ill and their families. This team can research, read, learn, and receive training to understand mental illness. They can discuss difficult situations and create care plans.
Also, they can build a database of psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, and hospitals in the area. Additionally, they can take steps to educate the church about different issues relating to mental health.
Secondly, Christians can be open to God’s work through psychologists and psychiatrists. Yes, we must be wary of a cultural tendency (especially in the West) to rush to medication without seeking spiritual help. Pills are not a substitute for prayer.
At the same time, we intuitively and practically recognise that God works through doctors for physical illnesses. So we must equally recognise that God works through therapists, specialists, caregivers, and first-responders to offer families greater insight and healing. In fact, the world’s first psychiatric hospital was started by a devout follower of Jesus.
Thirdly, we should make disciples who are full of biblical truth and compassion. At times, all of us might act eccentrically, irrationally, and awkwardly. But sometimes people demonstrate regular patterns of abnormal or irrational behaviour. The reasons could be any combination of unaddressed trauma in the past, stubborn patterns of sinfulness, or serious struggles with mental illness.
Only trained professionals can offer a real diagnosis. But we can certainly avoid making snap judgments. We must seek to understand what is truly behind someone’s irrational behaviour.
A biblical and compassionate theology of mental health will always move a follower of Jesus to think of God and move in prayer towards the mentally ill and their families.
God has appointed a time for the restoration of all things (Acts 3:19-21). A day is coming when followers of Jesus who struggle with mental illness will know him perfectly. They will enjoy him with a whole heart, mind, and body. Even for my mother, who does not know Jesus yet, God in his infinite wisdom and love will judge rightly with grace and truth.
Over all those who struggle with mental illness and over all their families, the true and wonderful God is at work—powerfully and profoundly. Truly, he has come so that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).