I suppose that if you looked at mental health as a continuum then perhaps most of us are somewhere in the middle – neither wonderfully happy at one end nor crushingly depressed at the other. We might slide up and down this continuum during our lives but mostly don’t need clinical help to deal with how we feel. Some people trip a wire in their lives which means they need professional help, even if they do not always obtain it. Some healthy people assume it is a kind of moral weakness in the mentally ill that they end up this way, demonstrating in the process neither gratitude for their own good health nor understanding of the triggers that lead to mental illness.
Some of these triggers are internal, when the chemicals in our brains naturally get out of balance; other triggers are external, like bereavement, marriage breakdown or debt, which produces very real changes in the chemicals in our brains. The painful and despairing outcome is like locking someone into a darkened room and throwing away the key. The New Testament has different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos denotes passage of time. Kairos means quality of time. These are those wonderful moments in life when it feels like time is suspended because you feel so happy – what psychologists call ‘flow’. When you are depressed, that same feeling of time suspended can be so sickeningly awful that it is hard to imagine ever feeling well again.
It can be very hard to support people in those endless weeks and months of mental illness and I have often felt inadequate trying to do so. The mere act of staying by a mentally ill person’s side is vital, yet even then there are times when the person may not want you around and because their emotional radar is all over the place, might wound you with unintentionally harsh words as well.
All the same, I have often found in mental health survivors something their suffering has done to them that gives them an empathy often lacking in others. I do not wish to romanticise this: many people who suffer mental illness say that the last thing they are capable of is helping someone else in the same position because they feel almost contagiously vulnerable. This empathy nevertheless speaks eloquently of the Apostle Paul’s observation:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians. 1:3-4)
The Bible has a lot to say about mental illness. It may not use this definition, but from beginning to end scripture is concerned with the human condition. In a fractured world which is out of relationship with God, the environment is littered with all kinds of traps which we stumble into, causing unhappiness. Jesus’ death and resurrection is putting creation right with God again. Heaven has reached down to earth and given a foretaste of what is to come: lives of love, joy and peace. But this remains incomplete until the new creation is upon us. For now we must live with the tension of lives partially put right. We feel the peace of God but we also feel pain in our minds.
Christians are often reluctant to admit to struggling mentally because they think others will see it as a sign of spiritual failure rather than a component of living in a fractured world. Churches need to address this error: good pastoral care should be rooted in sound theology.