Mental Illness: A Testimony

By Vincent Hollander

I have (or had) a schizo-affective disorder. That is a combination of paranoid schizophrenia and manic-depressive or bi-polar illness. I believe my psychiatrist has formulated a medication regime that has helped heal me.

Not all are so fortunate. There are many who have only partly recovered and they need further treatment. There is an old axiom that mental illness can be treated but not cured. That belief leaves God out of the picture. My hardwiring has been repaired. I bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Doctors have called me a liar to my face when I have claimed to have a mental illness. That is one reason I changed my name in this report.

It is exceedingly likely that the many neuroleptic (tranquilizing) medicines developed since the 1950s actually correct the physiological anomalies in the brain. Some medications are more effective for some people than they are for others. Everyone has a unique biochemistry, just as no two people have identical fingerprints.

Ministry With Those Affected By Mental Illness

By Gunnar Christiansen M.D.

(This paper was included at the Integration Seminar hosted by Fuller Seminary in February, 2012 in collaboration with NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] and other professionals.)

I am not a theologian, psychiatrist or psychologist. I am the father of a son who developed hallucinations and delusions during his third year at Pepperdine University.

As a small boy I recall my mother getting a daily call from our neighbor who in retrospect had a serious mental illness. Lisa would talk and talk and talk. My mother never complained, she listened and responded respectfully. When I asked my mother why she was willing to devote such a great deal of time to Lisa she answered that God loves everyone and he wants everyone to know that he loves them. “To the world you may be one person but to one person you may be the world.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every person of every faith provided a welcome and nourishing environment for those with a mental illness? The banding together of 23 churches in Seattle, Washington [in 1994] in the establishment of the Ballard Ecumenical Homeless Ministry is an outstanding example. The ministry has a weekly social hour, dinner, shower facilities, and a place to sleep for those who are homeless and have a mental illness referred to them by the Seattle Department of Mental illness.

Mental illness is a “lonely disorder.” People with mental illness don’t come to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple for a handout but for community. They want others to accept them. Help them understand that God loves them, suffers with them, and is with them in the most difficult times.

Education leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empathy. Empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes, leading to living, compassionate care. I refer you to the FaithNet NAMI website for a discussion of “Steps of Ministry.”

He Sought Out Legion

Jesus provides us with a powerful example of reaching out to those with a mental illness. I refer you to the gospels of Mark and Luke for the descriptions of Jesus’ healing of Legion who was described to be screaming, raging and harming himself (Mark 5:1-20). Thanks to present day scientific knowledge we now recognize that this type of abnormal functioning of the brain has an explainable biologic basis and in most cases can be shown to have a hereditary predisposition. [Though Dr. Deborah Levy of Harvard Medical School reminded the audience that everything genetic is not inherited – for example, mutations are one possible area that is now being studied].

It is my opinion that whether or not God permits the devil to cause cancer, a broken bone, mental illness, a heart attack or any other abnormality is beyond the human understanding. I would like to emphasize that Jesus asked his disciples to take him from where he was ministering to the multitudes to the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee to where Legion was kept in chains. Jesus sought Legion. He didn’t wait for Legion to come to him. After meeting him, Jesus put him in his "right mind" and returned him to full membership in the community.

Just as Jesus healed Legion and sent him back to his village, I believe he expects us to assist those with a mental illness to achieve a meaningful and rewarding life not only in our congregations but in the secular community as well.

Attacking the Stigma

Society places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of giving medication to those with hallucinations and delusions in order to return him to reality, but gives little consideration to the world of stigma and discrimination to which they returned. We are our brother’s keeper. Without the active involvement of the faith community, organizations such as NAMI may be able to trim the branches of stigma but it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to destroy its roots.

(Fuller’s February 2012 Integration Seminar included 1994’s Nobel Prize winner Dr. John Nash who fell victim to schizophrenia and spoke at a Fuller screening of the 2001 movie, “A Beautiful Mind”, starring Russell Crowe as Nash.)

There is one residual effect that medication does not neutralize, at least in my case. I am extremely sensitive to STRESS. To function well, I must manage stress well. While most people can cope with the stress of an eight hour work day, I can probably handle about two hours. Thus in the eyes of the provincial government of Alberta, Canada, I am considered “extremely handicapped.” I have had nineteen jobs in my life and never held one longer than six months. So I am thankful for my disability benefit and rental subsidy. This freed me to finish a two-year course in journalism from the International Correspondence School. I can now pursue a career in free-lance writing. I can work as long as is required.

One of my writing themes is to help remove the stigmas that still remain about mental illness. It was not too long ago when those in the know were convinced that mentally ill people were demon-possessed. After all, when were the mentally ill ever healed, people ask. Do healings occur today? Well, yes and no. There are reasons for that. Let’s take a second look.

We’re Still People!

Step One is to refer to the mentally ill people as people. They are not their illness. When people have cancer do we call them a cancer? Of course not. Then why do we refer to some people as schizophrenics or demoniacs? The stigma of mental illness is difficult enough to shoulder, let alone to label someone what they suffer from. No one chooses to be mentally ill. So Step Two is to educate ourselves. What is going on with mental illness?

About one in a hundred of the world’s population has schizophrenia. The label means “split mind” and refers to a break from reality. The mentally ill have a “fantasy reality” happening inside their head and it seems totally real to them. What causes it? More and more the evidence seems to be that it is genetically transferred from parents to children and is biochemical and psychological in nature (see article blow). Certain nerve receptors in the brain receive confused nerve messages from other nerve endings and this produces the symptoms of the disease. Drug abuse can often precipitate the disease if one has the genetic predisposition toward it. Extreme stress can also be a trigger. It usually manifests itself in adolescence or the early twenties.

I have encountered demon-possessed people. They leave an unmistakable impression, to say the least. The ones I have known do not respond to medications. The media attempts to sensationalize anything to do with mental illness. We are often bombarded with catch phrases such as “crazy” and “looney.” Movies depict demon-possessed people as red-eyed, self-immolating, husky-voiced vomiters of green sludge. Is that accurate?

Actually, some demons can imitate a CEO of a large corporation. In my judgment demon possession is the cause of mental illness in only one of five cases. [For more on this read Dr. Gunnar Christiansen’s helpful paper below.]

Things are improving!

But obviously we need to keep our senses and wits about us and develop a healthy skepticism about all things physical and spiritual. But…spirituality displayed by the mentally-ill is often perceived as a symptom of the illness and not as strength. During my early recovery period my efforts to work Bible study and prayer into my routine were met with benign resignation by mental health workers. This is the stigma again. Christianity can make a person Christ-like and that is a universe better than anything to do with mental illness. When I stood up in my church and confessed my struggles with mental illness four or five members of the congregation came forward to pray for me.

That is the kind of acceptance I needed, that we all need. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of a sound mind. Can you have a sound mind and be mentally ill? Are the two mutually excusive? Can the Holy Spirit operate and bear fruit in a brain that is biochemically ill?

I’d have to say from my example that the answer is an encouraging “Yes!” Thank you for reading this. Things are improving. The average citizen knows more about the issue than in the past but there is still a long road ahead.