Spiritual Wholeness, Mental Illness? (Part 1)

I’m thrilled to introduce you to Amy Simpson — a great friend and colleague I’ve known and worked with for years. Amy has recently — courageously — written a book exploring an issue she’s dealt with in her own family life: mental illness. Most of you, readers, have either personally known someone suffering from mental illness (or a friend of a friend) or have gone through some form of mental illness yourself (such as depression, bipolar, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, Seasonal Affective Disorder, PPD, etc.). It’s a surprisingly common pain that touches many lives. Yet it’s so rarely talked about openly in Christian circles . . . why? Join me in this 2-part conversation with Amy about “wholeness” (healing, grace, confidence, identity, faith), mental illness, and her new book Troubled Minds (InterVarsity Press).

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DSC_0043 HeadshotAmy, can you tell my readers a bit about yourself?

I’m a passionate leader and communicator who loves to encourage Christ’s church and its people to discern and fulfill their calling in this life. I do this in a few ways. With my husband, I’m raising two kids to follow Christ. I also serve as editor for Christianity Today’s GiftedForLeadership.com and the editor of marriage and parenting resources for Today’s Christian Woman. And I’m a freelance writer and author; my most recent book is Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission.

Troubled Minds #4304 CoverThis month on my blog we’re looking at the idea of being “whole”–and, inevitably, this means also looking honestly at the brokenness in our lives. One quite common experience of brokenness that many women go through is depression. Other forms of mental illness are also common. Yet we often keep problems like these hidden away, behind a facade. Why do you think we hide these kinds of struggles?

This is very common for several reasons. Here are a few:

In our culture, many people think God owes us a happy and comfortable life. So struggling with our mental health can be deeply disappointing and confusing, and it can be very hard for us to even acknowledge to ourselves that our lives don’t measure up to what we thought we deserved.

But mental illness doesn’t mean God has broken his promises to us. Despite what our culture suggests, comfort, happiness, and perfect health are not our natural state. God has not promised them to us in this life, and he doesn’t owe us anything. In fact, humanity forfeited our claim on a perfect world way back at the beginning, when we chose to reject God’s rule—and we have been making this choice ever since. Jesus didn’t promise us health in this life, nor problem-free living. In fact, he guaranteed us we would suffer: Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33). Suffering is not unusual and should not surprise us. What is shocking is that despite our sorry condition, we have hope. “But take heart,” Jesus said, “because I have overcome the world.”

Another reason people stay quiet is because they believe the lie that mental illness is an indication of spiritual or religious failure. They don’t want to admit that they just can’t measure up to God’s expectations, when the people around them seem to be doing just fine. But mental illness generally is not a spiritual problem (although the mind certainly can affect the spirit, and vice versa). A person with a mental illness has just that—an illness. While spiritual practices like prayer and Bible reading can help facilitate and support healing, illnesses require treatment. Besides, God does not hold himself out of reach and demand that we earn his grace or demonstrate that we’re good enough for his healing touch. Jesus asked “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” to come to him and “find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). He condemned legalistic religious leaders, “For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Luke 11:46). Following Jesus may not be easy, but it’s not a religious burden. If someone tells you your suffering would end if only you were a better Christian, that message is not from God.

A third reason is because mental illness is heavily stigmatized. We think of it differently than we do other kinds of illness. But mental illnesses are real medical conditions, caused by biological, environmental, and other factors. They can be treated. Some treatments are up to 90 percent effective. As with many other medical conditions, successful treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the illness is cured, but therapy and medications can help people manage their disorders and live well. There is no reason to be ashamed of illness. Each year, more than 25 percent of adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Mental illness is quite common. In fact, it’s about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, people with heart disease and diabetes, and everyone infected with HIV and AIDS—combined! Although many people don’t talk about their experiences with mental illness, we are all literally surrounded by people who are suffering.

What’s the danger of hiding struggles like these?

Hiding our struggles isolates us from one another and cuts us off from the friendships we need. It keeps us from seeking and finding the treatment we need, and it closes us off from the grace and health we could receive. Hiding also means we miss out on an opportunity to minister—either now or in the future—to others who have similar struggles.

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Come by the blog tomorrow to read Part 2 of this interview where Amy and I talk about her personal experiences growing up with a parent suffering from schizophrenia, her hope for the church in this area, and more. 

Be sure to check out Amy’s web site (AmySimpsonOnline.com) and get a copy of Troubled Minds for yourself (or a copy for you to share with your pastor or church leaders).

And if you know someone who’s personally suffering from a mental illness or who is struggling with a friend or family member who is mentally ill, consider sharing this blog post with them.

See you tomorrow!

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