(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
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
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.