The definition of insanity is…. [doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.]
Only problem is that “insanity” isn’t a medical diagnosis at all. It’s only a pop-culture term or idea.
Mental illness is a normative part of human existence.
As normal a part of your and my life as any sickness or illness. From temporary situational anxiety and depression or anger we all experience; to chronic anxiety, depression, bipolar 1&2, borderline personality disorder, etc…
Mental health is a challenge for each and every one of us. Something we must consistently pursue, against sometimes impossible odds.
Popular media presentations do us little good, with the false assumption that “normal” equals mentally healthy and mental illness equals insanity, talking to trees or Jack Nicholson in One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. The mentally ill being those we ignore, push away, or hide. My mom suspects several on her side who were ill, that no one talked about in plain speech but only euphemism.
Too often, but no always, communities assign stigma to illnesses which you cannot see, and special treatment to illnesses that you can see.
Why is this, why treat them differently? When medicine today clearly points out that mental illness is indeed illness that needs diagnosis, treatment, medicine and care?
As an example of how easy it is to stigmatize one and reward the other, allow me to make an observation; which, as all observations are neutral and neither interpretation nor judgmental.
Let’s take a look at our own sharing time in worship. We tend to reward physical illness with special concern, indeed the majority of our sharing is about physical ailments. We verbalize prayer requests for self and others. And we pray for healing.
But it is on very rare occasions and then only with fear and trepidations that we share about our own or others mental illness. Again, keep in mind there is no debate medically about how both bodies and minds can be and sometimes are ill.
So why do we reward one and stigmatize the other?
- Lord of the Rings and Gollum
- Anterograde amnesia-50 First Dates
- OCD/ the Aviator and Howard Hughes
- Bipolar/ Silver Linings Playbook
- Depression/ The Perks of Being a….
- Dissociative Disorders and Eating Disorders/ Black Swan
- Borderline Personality/ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- Misnamed Insanity/ One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
- Sociopathy/ Fight Club
I could go on.
But Perhaps Hollywood is not the only one deserving some blame:
What if our theology and Biblical preaching is also to blame.
Faith can be a dangerous veneer, provider of false hope, or source of crushing misguided and uneducated shame. Like when we moralize mental illness. (See pic)
I’ve heard one sermon on mental health or illness I can remember. It was based on one of the most severe, shocking and outright scary stories in the New Testament.
BLINDED BY THE EXTREME
I’m talking of course about the gruesome demoniac in Mark 5. A man Jesus encountered only after “crossing over to the other side.”
The extreme portrayal includes a man living near tombs, naked, disassociated from his personality and completely cut off from family. He roamed the hills and tombs screaming, fighting off all attempts to chain him up. Because, you know, the chains would give him some relief or healing.
We might be prone to see Geresene’s in our own world. Perhaps the homeless we stereotype as wandering aimlessly, talking to themselves or tress, unable to hold down work.
Another setting our culture places before us is the justice system; where the broad, non-technical, and nearly always wrong term “insanity” is used to excuse the crimes of the ill. (State laws prohibit the execution of people with severe mental illness or development. But “insanity” is often broader and more ambiguous)
While these may indeed portray mental illness, all three are in extreme form only.
Hermeneutically it might be a good thing to read modern ideas back into the story. I don’t have a problem with that.
But what happens when we flip the script, and read ancient ideas forward into our own context? My experience is that it emotionally charges us with a predetermined perception towards all mental illness that equals demon possession, weird, or dangerous.
This simply is not so. Such stories blind us to how normal mental illness is. It refuses to allow for the possibility that normal, productive, seemingly well-adjusted folks we know and love also suffer from mental illness in one form or another. It refuses to accept the facts:
- 1 is 4 American adults (65 million) experience mental illness in a given year
- 1 in 17(13.6) live with serious mental illness
- 20% of youth 13-18 severe mental disorder
- for 8-15 its 13%
- 15 million suffer from depression
- 6 million from the variety of bipolar
Let me say it again: Mental illness is a normative part of human existence, as normal a part of life as any sickness or illness.
Thus mental health is a challenge for each and every one of us. Something we must consistently pursue, against sometimes impossible odds.
Jeremiah as a Better Example
If mental health is a normative human experience, and not just for the stereotyped extreme few, then what resources might the Bible provide to explore mental health and illness?
Jeremiah, the ancient prophet known for his radical politics and preaching, and his call to “seek the peace of the enemy city” his people had been exiled to, also exhibits several characteristic symptoms of bipolar disorder.
And yet, unlike the Geresene demoniac, we invite him into our living rooms and sanctuaries – not after he’s found healing and exorcism, but as he really is. This might be anachronistic, reading something back into the text that isn’t there. But I’m giving myself a lot of leeway, because of the dearth of faith-based resources.
It’s important to note that Bi-polar disorder is no longer called “manic depression.” And that it has 2 or more types. The most well-known being Bipolar 1 with symptoms of mania that can become – but are not always – dangerous or antisocial. But it also includes Bipolar 2 with predominant symptoms of depression and lower forms of what they call hypomania. As well as the category Not-Otherwise Specified or Bipolar spectrum disorder for folks who exhibit some but not enough symptoms of Bipolar to pass the benchmark for diagnosis. These three types are not so much differentiated because of severity, but rather emotional characteristics.
Jeremiah has times of incredible, uncontrollable and highly creative positive energy. Sometimes these periods are awkwardly positive. Like when he bellows, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart (Jeremiah 5:16).”
And sometimes they seem unnecessarily bleak. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed (Jer 15:18)?”
He exhibits swings in energy and temperament that jar your mind and often catch you off guard as you read Jeremiah. They don’t always make sense. Sometimes he’s up, sometimes down. Yes, his circumstances were bleak and dangerous. But the only thing you can count on from Jeremiah is that whatever he’s expressing at any one moment will flip flop if you just stick around long enough.
His depression sounds over the top, but its categorically normative for those who suffer. Like when he says, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night (Jer 9:1).” No wonder he’s often called the weeping prophet!
Likewise his optimism (which sounds odd when the pendulum swings so far from depression into over-zealous rhetoric) can quickly move into near hyperbole, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23.”
Did you catch the extreme rhetoric: “never… never… every….”
For Jeremiah, the most telling symptom may be his blurring of vocation and illness. Like when he speaks about how his speech races uncontrollably – its just something he cannot stop. “It was like fire in my bones… I am worn out trying to hold it in! I can’t do it (Jer 20:9)!” And no matter how much he wanted it to stop, he couldn’t make it stop. “O Lord…you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed (Jer 30:10).” Reminds me of another great prophet with a similar “thorn in the flesh” who lamented “the very thing I want to do I cannot do, but that which I want to do I can’t.”
There’s one more noteworthy aspect of Jeremiah’s potential mental illness. It shows us how normal mental illness is. Whether he suffers with mental illness or situational depression, it’s clear that those who suffer can be and are normal, productive, well-adjusted folks we know and love.
SELF-CARE AS RESPONSE
Too often the church has dangerously portrayed spirituality as the singlular answer for mental illness: repent and be healed, have enough faith and be healed, be anointed and be healed, etc… This just doesn’t align with reality, and can’t be perpetrated today. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that here. Instead, here are 4 areas to assist in mental healthfulness.
Mental Health treatment is the fundamental first step in addressing mental illness. Diagnosis, treatment, counseling and care are essential no less for mental as for physical sickness. You wouldn’t put a band aide on cancer. So don’t put a false label or treatment on mental illness, or veneer it with faith-talk.
Embrace the body-mind connection. Experts consistently embrace the importance of body health for our emotional wellbeing. There’s a psychosomatic relationship between body and emotions and mental health – all of which is related to the soul and spiritual health. For one small example, the article – The Surprising Link Between Gut Bacteria and Anxiety – talks about how important gut bacteria is for mental health; our gut is were serotonin and the chemicals essential in regulating our brain synapsis are produced. Equally important for some are the focal practices associated with food, earth, creativity… finding ways to use our bodies and not just our intellects.
Community is essential. Openness, vulnerability, radical honesty, and sharing bravely are healthy components for all our relationships: with God, family, spouse, and professional counselors. The importance of clearly saying what is so cannot be overstated. While I don’t advocate for God as the only dialogue partner, God is a proven space in which to practice our truth. Remember, God’s heard it all before (from Jeremiah, the Psalmist, David) and can handle whatever emotions you share!
Spirituality can play a helpful roll when that roll is understood. Many testify to a deepened sense of God’s presence. But others need permission for faith to transition and grow. What works when you’re young or healthy, or happy, likely won’t work anymore when you’re depressed, chronically anxious, bulimic, or when you’ve been newly diagnosed. Let go of inherited practices, and move into new practices that work to sustain and connect you to energy.
WHAT ABOUT CARING FOR THOSE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS?
For those in the role of car-giver: Learn, Learn, Learn! Commit to use appropriate, precise language. Remember, your loved one sick, not insane. It’s a disease, just like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. If a loved one were diagnosed with diabetes you’d change your behavior; you might learn to bake sugar free. If a loved one suffered heart disease you’d graciously forego eating burgers and fries in their presence. Learn the basics, including how to love well (and safely).
As one example, depression is more than grey clouds on sad days. It’s predominant expression is actually disinterest, and lack of energy for doing things that typically give life.
Be there for them. Don’t judge, don’t fix, don’t downplay. Don’t live as if business as usual is the way to fix it.
Perhaps a Family support group offering care and education for you, would be a great way to increase your caring capacity. Check out NAMI to see if, like Houston, your city has this great organization.
God is redeeming all things – things you can see and things you cannot see. The seen –like cancer and broken arms – and the unseen – like mental illness and silent hidden behind-closed-door suffering.
God invites us to Love God with all our hearts, soul, mind and body because God first loves our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. Regardless how much our culture neglects our minds – and for that matter our spirits – God doesn’t. Divinity beckons to us all, “Come to me & I will give you rest.”
“Consider the birds of the air, they neither reap nor sow… Or the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin. (a great glimpse at the production level the mentally ill often experience), yet God clothes them, and will you too. Do not worry about tomorrow… today is hard enough (Matt 6:26, 28, 34).”
A Jeremiah Scripture Reading for Worship. Click here for a 2-person reading of various texts from Jeremiah that free us to be ourselves, and present ourselves, to God in worship (including our mental health).