Sunday, 8 January 2012

Christianity and mental illness - further thoughts

Having said that the church has problems with mental illness, I would like to highlight a few exceptions, for the sake of balance. I attend a Friday morning men's prayer breakfast and have felt able to share my mental health difficulties openly without fear of condemnation. There is a psychiatrist in that group who is particularly supportive, having had his own, different, mental health issues. We are planning to meet up regularly to pray together. He also has similar taste in music to me and has lent me some wonderful music, a lot of which I have found very soothing - see my recent recommendations on my Music page. It's not all bad in the church - there will always be individuals who are understanding, either due to personal experience, or due to people close to them suffering mental illness. They may have more knowledge of the area, through work, or just be the kind of people who accept others as they are. That's how Jesus was, and how his followers should be. You find, in the Gospels, that people are accepted by Jesus with compassion first, and then a change comes out of that acceptance. He stands against the Pharisees with their over-zealous application of the law - don't heal today, it's the Sabbath, for example. In therapy, the attitude of Jesus is translated into "Unconditional Positive Regard" (Carl Rogers). Rogers talks of the need for warmth, integrity and empathy when working with clients. This was in contrast to the Freudian style where the therapist would not reveal anything about themselves and would avoid eye contact by sitting behind the patient, who would be on the couch, in an inferior position to the therapist. There were all sorts of reasons why Freud did this, some to do with his views on transference and countertransference and being a clean sheet for the client to project on. However, I've found that if you engage at a deeper level with the client, the transference and countertransference also become deeper. For further thoughts on this read my paper in Approaches.
Some leading clergy speak very compassionately and with understanding about mental health, for example Bishop Stephen of Ely. However, there is a still a great deal of misunderstanding and offensive ideas within the church, across denominations. Sometimes it is the more evangelical churches that fail to understand human weakness. They often have the view that if you are following Christ, and are full of the Holy Spirit, you are somehow immune from illness, particularly psychological ones. Would that were the case! They might even view some illnesses as a punishment from God.  I don't particularly like having depression, but I see it as a part of who I am, who I have been, and possibly who I will be, this side of heaven at least. It has hopefully made me more compassionate and more able to do my work with integrity and understanding.
In future posts I will explore some of the Biblical texts that may have been used against people with mental illness, and will expound what I believe to be a more rounded understanding of the Biblical Christian attitude to it.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Christianity and mental illness

This is a major issue in the church, where there is still considerable misunderstanding, as there is in the wider community. One would hope that a church would be counter-cultural, but all too often it reflects the world's values rather than challenging them. This post will be a short introduction to my thoughts on this issue, as it's getting late and I'm a bit tired. Firstly, what are my motivations for writing about this? I am a Christian, and have been attending various churches for my whole life (40 years and counting) Thirty years ago I was first diagnosed with severe clinical depression and put on a tricyclic antidepressant called amitryptyline This drug is no longer recommended for children as it can cause psychotic symptoms, as it did for me. These included thinking there was a tape recorder under my bed, thinking the radio was speaking directly to me, and a feeling that a cosmic battle between good and evil was being fought in my mind. I was bed bound, virtually paralysed with tension, for about six months. So, I have 30 years experience of mental illness, three quarters of my life.
I have found that churches don't often address mental illness - I've never heard a sermon explicitly on the issue. Although most Christians are compassionate, some feel that mental illness is somehow your own fault - you're not praying enough, you don't have sufficient faith, you are weak or deficient in some way. Some even see it as a form of demon possession. In this series of posts I'm going to explore Christian attitudes to mental illness, share some of my experiences, negative and positive, and outline my views and beliefs about how Christians can respond to it in others and themselves. I'm not usually one to share my illness like this, but I have been so inspired and helped by other blogs on mental illness, that I thought maybe, just maybe, someone out there might find this helpful. Also, it might help other Christians who don't suffer mental illness to understand it better and to respond more appropriately.
Comments very welcome, I'd love to hear from you.