Wholly Healthy: What to Do With Mental Illness?

Among the greatest challenges of modern healthcare is the management of mental illness. While I’m no psychiatrist, I see the mentally ill with regularity in my practice. From epidemic depression and anxiety, to undertreated and undiagnosed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we live in a land with far too many mentally ill citizens and far too few options for treatment.

The mentally ill manifest their diseases in many ways. They cut themselves to deal with anxiety and inner pain. They abuse alcohol and street drugs in order to medicate illnesses for which they cannot afford proper therapy and prescriptions. They try to kill themselves, and frequently succeed. They kill their loved ones in hallucinatory tragedies, and they cause terrible emotional pain to family members in their rejection, isolation and outbursts. They use sex to temporarily ease their pain, and they explode in violence over issues others cannot begin to fathom. Sometimes they just cry and sit in dark rooms, unwilling to talk with anyone.

This should matter to Southern Baptists — indeed, to Christians everywhere — because mental illness is just that: an illness. When the deacons find out that Mr. Nesbit has had a heart attack, we take casseroles and alert the prayer warriors. When Mrs. Foggarty has liver failure, we take the casseroles and alert the prayer warriors. But when that Alexander boy gets committed to the mental hospital, we’re at a loss. We don’t always know what to do with mental illness. However, if we remember that mental illness seems to be a problem with the brain, and the brain is an organ like the heart or liver, pancreas or gallbladder, then it makes it easier.

For far too long, I’m afraid we associated mental illness with a character flaw or sin. While one may develop problems that are a consequence of sin (depression may follow promiscuity, dementia could be a consequence of alcohol abuse, etc.), mental illness is no more a sin issue than any other illness. (Mr. Nesbit was a bit of a glutton, “bless his heart,” and developed heart disease, and Mrs. Foggarty hit the bottle for a very long time before she found the Lord … well, and occasionally afterward.)

So it’s time we move forward. For those believers who fear they or their loved ones have mental illness, I say pray and seek professional help, without shame. The answer isn’t simply “just trust God,” since we wouldn’t say that to our neighbor with a very high blood pressure; instead, we’d direct him to his doctor.

I want to see the church open its arms and doors to those who struggle with mental illness, members and non-members alike. We represent Jesus, who loves the sick and the well, the sane and the mad, and everyone in between. Many of the mentally ill are badly broken, rejected and lonely, and the church has much to offer even as they seek professional help. While some mental illness requires intensive psychiatric care and medications, many of those afflicted need nothing more than a new way to think about their lives and a new set of people to hug and hold them, cry with them and show them their worth and identity in Christ.

So let’s liberate the mentally ill from stigma and hushed silence. We need not understand the subtleties or complexities of mental illness to take the love of Jesus to its victims.

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