Sitting in ashes and sackcloth the Prophet Jeremiah cried out to God for salvation. His eyes down cast, tears streaming down his face. He was a man in desperation, a man in the bitter pit of despair.
Francis of Assisi heard voices that no one else could hear. Sometimes he even preached lively sermons to groups of animals. Surely he was a man in the grip of a confusing psychosis.
The reformer Martin Luther sat for days on end, eating and drinking little, his melancholy mood evident in his writings. Often he was a man who could barely breathe through the think fog of depression that engulfed him.
Interestingly, Christianity has a plethora of prophets, saints, and scholars who battled with mental illness. However, ironically, throughout history the Church has often used her power to imprison, ostracise and even burn at the stake mentally ill individuals.
Mental illness in the church today
These days the Church is increasingly nicer to mentally ill people. But I think there are still problems. It's just that the Church seems to place an overwhelming pressure on individuals to recover, quickly, from mental illness. 'Overcome it. Conquer it', we're told.
I also believe the solutions that the Church generally gives are often far too simplistic. It seems that all you have to do is engage in the spiritual trifecta of faith and prayer and daily Bible readings and you can cure even the most serious mental disturbance.
'It's the enemy attacking', or so we're told. 'Pray harder. Read more verses. Volunteer your time. Tithe your money. Cry out to God, He will heal you', we're counselled.
I wonder if such solutions are birthed out of a spiritualisation of mental illness. Perhaps because mental illness is invisible, like spirituality, it has become some sort of quasi-spiritual experience. And therefore we think mental illnesses can be overcome by spiritual disciplines.
However, I consider the spiritualisation of mental illness unhelpful. As mental health organisations have long articulated, I think mental illness is a sickness not unlike physical illness. This means it cannot be simply overcome with spiritual disciplines. And suggesting it can perhaps only further stigmatises those who are mentally ill.
Let's ask a different question
That is not to say I don't think faith can help a person living with mental illness. I think it can. Faith is about meaning, and joy and hope—surely the most fragile of minds can appreciate such things more than anyone.
Nevertheless, I have to admit in my experience faith rarely helps alleviate mental illness. Mental illness so often remains a thorn in the flesh; a terrible suffering that doesn't go away.
But perhaps there's a different way to look at the association between faith and mental illness. Instead of just asking how faith can improve our lives, maybe we could also be asking What can improve our faith? That is to ask, Can mental illness assist faith?
I think it can. Of course mental illness can lead to despair and far from faith. But in my experiences mental illness can also positively impact faith. In fact, I once visited a psychiatric ward and found half a dozen people reading their Bibles, and others engrossed in meaningful spiritual discussions. Often people living with serious mental health issues are people of inspirational faith.
Mental illness assists faith
To me, mental illness is not seeing the road ahead of you. It is not knowing where you are going. It is confusion. Chaos. Distortions. And desperateness. Mental illness feels like delving into a deep dark mystery. Whether it is an endless despair or the hearing of voices no one else can hear, mental illness feels like a loss of personal control.
I think this is the perfect ground for a deep faith to flourish.
The saints often said we are on the road to knowing God when we lose personal control. We discover God when we sit in silence, suffering and mystery; all of which mental illness catapults us into. In this place we don't twist God to fit into our own image. Rather we grow to know a God that transcends our own ideas.
It's the long road to knowing God, a marathon even. I think people with mental illness can teach us a lot about faith, about finding God. So perhaps we must run alongside those who suffer.
Danielle Carney lives in Melbourne, has a degree in Christian Theology and once worked for an inner city church with a giant steeple. She spends her days leading small groups for homeless women on spirituality, losing debates to her toddler daughter, and trying to contain her overwhelming interest in Mystical and Monastic religion.
Danielle's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/danielle-carney.html