Week 5 – Stigma and Mental Illness

Social Justice Statement 2020 – 2021

Jesus himself was labelled mad (Mk 3:21; Jn 10:19) and like us he suffered psychological distress (Lk 22:44; Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33; Jn 12:27). If Jesus embraced these human experiences, can we not welcome and value those who are living through them today?

We do not believe that mental ill-health is caused by a moral failure or that it is a matter of character. Suffering from a psychiatric disorder or experiencing psychological distress is not a sign of a lack of faith or weak will. Throughout history we can see that people of strong faith and great holiness also experience mental health challenges.

The account of Jesus’ own distress and suffering in the garden at Gethsemane (Lk 22:44, Mt 26:37, Mk 14:33, Jn 12:27) makes it particularly difficult to sustain a claim that mental distress should not be part of the Christian life!

There are many accounts of psychological distress in the Bible. For example, at one point, Elijah is so despondent that he asks God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4), and Naomi is so distressed that she renames herself Mara or ‘bitter’ (Ruth 1:20).

God’s response to Elijah suggests an integrated approach to mental health. An angel appears to Elijah tending to the physical needs of his tired body and later God approaches Elijah gently in a whisper addressing the source of his despair. The story of Naomi and Ruth highlights the importance of social support in times of psychological distress. In neither case does God chastise the one who is suffering or coax them to pray more or to repent of sin!

The account of the Gerasene demoniac, who is living in a cemetery among the dead (Mt 8:28-34; Mk 5:1-17; Lk 8:26-37) and exhibiting behaviours that suggest mental ill-health, is a story of the dignity of the person-in-community. The man himself, while still ill, takes the initiative and runs towards Jesus (Mk 5:6-7). When he is cured, the man is restored not only to health, but also to community.

He is freed from the stigma of mental ill-health. Furthermore, he is invited to participate in Jesus’ mission and becomes a witness. He is sent out to proclaim God’s action in his life (Mk 5:19-20).

Some instances of mental illness may be explained and addressed by a purely medical approach.

However a more holistic approach is often needed because human beings are a unity of body, mind and spirit, and we are persons-in-community. Mental ill-health, and the suffering that often accompanies it, may be as much a mystery to be lived as a problem to be solved. Some suffering – including psychological suffering – can be meaningful, potentially transformative, and even redemptive. Not everyone who experiences mental illness will recover, but all nonetheless share in Jesus’ promise of the fullness of life (Jn 10:10). If we seek only to cure, rather than to accompany people experiencing mental ill-health, we will be of no help to people seeking meaning in their experience. We will not notice the action of God in their lives or learn what they have to teach us.

It is precisely in the broken, powerless and despised that God most frequently speaks to us. Like all members of the Body of Christ, people experiencing mental ill-health are called to be witnesses in their own way.

Reference: Social Justice Statement 2020-21: Live Life to the Full Mental Health in Australia Today. Pages 8 – 10.